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Opinion: Remote Schooling Means We Have To Fix The Homework Gap Now

by Jessica Rosenworcel

Right now, millions of families just like mine are gathering at the kitchen table and sitting on the sofa for school. It’s not a choice they made on their own, but it’s a necessity. Across the country schools have shut their doors to protect students, teachers, and staff from the coronavirus. So many students and so many classes have migrated to online learning.

This means instruction is downloaded, assignments are uploaded, and videos of the new virtual classroom are being streamed into our homes. It’s amazing to think how much technology can help learning continue through this crisis and when our health and safety requires that we stay at home.

But while digital education goes on for some families, it does not continue for all.

As a member of the Federal Communications Commission, I’ve seen our country’s digital divide up close. It strikes students especially hard. While nearly all kids have access to broadband at school, many do not have it at home. This makes nightly schoolwork a challenge because so much of it now requires internet access.

According to the Senate Joint Economic Committee, there are 12 million students nationwide who fall into this “Homework Gap.” You see them working on assignments in parking lots outside school long after the final bell has rung, sliding into booths at fast food restaurants, and lingering on the steps of the library long after it has shut. These are the only places they can get online with a wireless signal that is free.

The Homework Gap is especially cruel right now. As a nation we have been asked to go online for school and work like never before.

I’ve spoken to some of these students. They have tremendous grit. They are cobbling together connectivity for school wherever they can find it. I’ve also spoken to some of their parents. They are struggling to do the best they can for their children but may not be able to offer them more than a borrowed mobile phone with a limited data plan to help with their schoolwork.

The Homework Gap is especially cruel right now. As a nation we have been asked to go online for school and work like never before. We worry if our networks can handle it, if our infrastructure will be overloaded, and if the internet platforms we use can withstand this rush of activity. But we should also worry about the students left behind. Too many of them will be cut off from school without the connectivity they need to keep up with learning and continue with their classes.

Just yesterday I spoke with a group of school superintendents from across the country. They represented districts big and small, in urban and rural communities. What they had in common was a deep concern for the well-being of their students during this crisis and a real worry that the Homework Gap would cut too many of them off from remote learning. Moreover, they were worried that as a nation we had failed to focus on this for too long and with the coronavirus now here we need to work fast to help get more students online.

This is why I think the FCC needs to act fast and help these kids stuck on the wrong side of the digital divide. It has a program to bring the internet to schools in every state, known as E-Rate. Now with classrooms heading online, the FCC should step in and help every student get connected. It can do this by using the E-Rate program to let school libraries loan out wi-fi hotspots. They’re puck-sized mobile devices that students can take home and use with school-issued laptops and devices. They could make a meaningful difference in the lives of millions of students who are staying at home and struggling to keep up with school.

The most important thing to do is for the FCC to get started. By updating the E-Rate program we can help more families keep their children learning during these challenging times. In my role at the agency, and as a mom, I think solving the Homework Gap like this is the right thing to do because now is the time to help every child get online.

Jessica Rosenworcel is Federal Communications Commissioner.