Industry Trends

Closing the Homework Gap Through the Emergency Connectivity Fund

By Bob Turner | March 17, 2022

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) in the United States recently extended the deadline for Emergency Connectivity Fund (ECF) awardees to spend their funding. To the delight and relief of many, the new service delivery deadline has been moved back by 12 months to June 30, 2023. Fortinet applauds the FCC’s action to provide this critical program extension.

What Is the Emergency Connectivity Fund?

Using the resources provided under the FCC-administered Emergency Connectivity Fund program, schools are allowed to purchase and distribute broadband devices such as “hot spots” to enable students to access learning resources from home. Solutions are available on the market to provide the services and security needed by remote-learning students.

As most educators know, there is a “homework gap” as students without the broadband access they need for remote learning or completing homework assignments are struggling to keep up with their peers. The problem became more acute during the pandemic as stay-at-home children without broadband and internet devices—in rural and urban communities—were unable to participate in online education.

Prior to the pandemic, 15% of students were unable to do their homework due to lack of reliable internet services at home.

The ECF was set up to address this problem as part of the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021. FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel is a passionate supporter of the program seeing the homework gap as an “especially cruel part of the digital divide.”

Last year when the ECF program kicked off, Rosenworcel promised, “We won’t consider the job done until we have policies in place that can help every student get the connection they now need for class, no matter who they are, where they live, or where they go to school.”

Available Funds and Options Moving Forward

According to the FCC’s ECF website in early February 2022, “The Commission to date has committed nearly $4.5 billion in program funding to support more than 10,800 schools, 875 libraries, and 125 consortia for nearly 9.9 million connected devices and over 4.9 million broadband connections.” This is a considerable feat.

Before the extension, many schools and libraries participating in the ECF program were in danger of not being able to use the funds by the June 2022 deadline due to delays in application processing and other factors. Now, with the extension it appears that funding will not be left on the table and more students and institutions will be able to fully utilize these resources. This also provides certainty to teachers, students, and parents heading into the next school year.

“Extending the ECF deadline will help millions of students and library patrons maintain their internet connections for several more months. We’ve been hearing from applicants that the June 30, 2022 deadline would have imposed a severe hardship on schools and libraries who might have seen their funding go to waste due to supply chain delays and other factors beyond their control,” said John Windhausen Jr., executive director of the Schools, Health & Libraries Broadband Coalition, in a statement following the ECF extension announcement.

There are additional steps the FCC could take to further close the homework gap. One of the most timely options proposed by a coalition of entities representing schools and libraries is the establishment of a new application round for ECF participation. Noting the availability of $800 million of remaining ECF funds, a third funding window could have a broader reach given that “some schools and libraries that were unfamiliar with the ECF program last year.” Other entities including the Information Technology Industry Council and the U.S. Chamber have expressed support for this new funding window as well.

The Challenges Driving the Need for Wireless Services

Even before the pandemic, the homework gap was not being adequately addressed. According to many educators like Crystal Haskins, principal of James Blair Middle School in Williamsburg, VA, the amount of homework being given was not always adding value to learning. Haskins asks, “If students are not gaining mastery of tier one material, why are we giving homework?”

30% of all public K–12 students fall into the homework gap.

When COVID-19 forced an explosion of remote learning for K–12 schools, the issue had to be addressed with more care, speed, and intensity. Inserting parents or caregivers into the teaching ecosystem overnight was a huge challenge as they had to assist their children/students in acclimating to a learning management system without any formal instruction. This resulted in a far-from-ideal classroom learning experience and the 1-to-1 student to teacher relationship also suffered greatly.

The list of challenges schools face with remote learning is long:

1) Figuring out the process. Principal Haskins recalls the difficult challenge of bringing teachers and students together to figure out how to download assignments and course materials and then upload completed assignments.

2) Adequate cellular coverage. Students without internet access at home were being issued wireless hot spots when they were available and affordable. Even then, some of those hot spots were either defective or there was not adequate cellular coverage for the technology to work properly and provide the right data speeds and capacity.

3) Substitute teachers. When the assigned teachers had to be out of the classroom to take care of themselves or family, the substitute teachers may not have had the right internet access or understand the learning management system and how it works for that school or school district.

4) Lack of technology expertise. Principal Haskins says that teachers and administrators have had to become functional experts on the school’s learning systems in a short amount of time, and they need a better understanding of how to maximize the tools. Ongoing professional development is required for teachers and to do it in context with their students’ needs.

5) Burnout. Principal Haskins strongly believes that if the teachers had more hours in a day, they could and would “make it happen.” Add to these issues the fact that teacher burnout is real and it is impacting their ability to jump across the digital divide. She concludes, “Right now, the only impact of the technology is to make the teacher’s day longer.”

Now that students are returning to the brick-and-mortar classrooms, learning needs to catch up with the pandemic from a technology perspective. Better training is one issue. Adapting the tools toward age, ability, and the appropriate pedagogy is another. In both areas, extending the ability of funding the tools and training using the ECF is vital.

What the Future May Hold for Closing the Homework Gap

It might be a small issue to some, but the parents, caregivers, and students need the ability to manage homework to maintain their pace of academic growth. For some, wireless hotspots and related services provided under the ECF may be the only way to get broadband access. Fortinet supports further efforts to close the homework gap, including the FCC taking additional steps to maximize utilization of the ECF program as recommended by the education community.

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