With confirmed cases of coronavirus on the rise in the US, over 100,000 schools have closed, disrupting the education of over 55 million students. While many schools are turning to online instruction, the millions of students who fall into the “homework gap”— those who lack broadband access at home — risk falling further behind their peers.
The gap is substantial. Approximately 12 million students lack broadband access at home. While many think of the digital divide as an urban-rural divide, there are three times as many households without broadband access in urban areas than rural areas.
Within the two largest public school systems in the nation, New York City and Los Angeles, millions of households don’t have broadband access. In New York City, roughly one million households don’t have access and in Los Angeles it’s over a million. For many students in these households, a smartphone and public WiFi is their only option.
Online instruction often requires high-bandwidth connections to download content and engage in real-time instruction through videoconferencing. A smartphone is insufficient and with the current statewide “shelter in place” orders, students will be unable to depend on public WiFi networks.
While the FCC has long-standing programs in place to support high-speed broadband inclusion and access to computers for students and low-income households, such as E-Rate and Lifeline, these programs desperately need updating to address the connectivity needs faced by students in this crisis.
The E-Rate program will provide $4 billion in investments in 2020 to support broadband development in schools and libraries, but restrictions on use of funding to support students’ broadband access at home — like purchasing mobile hotspots or consumer devices such as laptops and tablets — will only further the homework gap. Since 2016, Lifeline has offered subsidies for broadband access in low-income households, yet reforms implemented under the Trump administration have made it more difficult for people to apply. Only one-fourth of eligible households are currently enrolled and recently proposed reforms threaten to further reduce enrollments.