Homework Gap

Federal Program to Reimburse Schools for Devices, Hotspots, Home Broadband

The Federal Communications Commission has finalized rules for a $7.17 billion program that will reimburse schools for 100% of the “reasonable” cost of equipment and services to give students the access to technology they need for remote and hybrid learning.

According to the FCC, some 17 million students lack adequate broadband or devices for today’s learning. The Emergency Connectivity Fund Program will allow schools (and libraries) “to purchase laptop and tablet computers, Wi-Fi hotspots, and broadband connectivity for students, school staff, and library patrons in need during the COVID-19 pandemic.”

In order to be eligible, such equipment must be used primarily for educational purposes, according to the text of the rule. Further, eligible equipment is not limited only to hardware and services used in school and at home. “Service locations may include, but are not limited to, homes, community centers, churches, school buses, bookmobiles, and any other off-campus locations where students, school staff, and library patrons are engaged in remote learning activities,” according to the rule.

The initial application window will fund purchases to be made between July 1, 2021 and June 30, 2022.

Interestingly, while the fund is primarily meant to fund future purchases, it may also be used to reimburse schools for equipment and services purchased earlier in the pandemic (between March 1, 2020 and June 30, 2021). If funds remain available, a new application window will be opened to allow schools to apply for such reimbursements — either after the initial application window or after a subsequent application window that maybe be needed to further address future purchases.

According to the rule: “If the demand for these future purchases does not exceed available funds, we will open an additional application window to allow schools and libraries to seek funding for eligible equipment and broadband Internet access services that they purchased earlier in the pandemic to address the needs of students, school staff, and library patrons who would otherwise have lacked access to devices and services sufficient to meet their remote learning needs.”

“Far too often, students, teachers, and library patrons lack the access they need to broadband and connected devices. This need has become even more apparent during these unprecedented times,” said Jessica Rosenworcel, acting chairwoman of the FCC, in a prepared statement. “Between this Emergency Connectivity Fund Program and the Emergency Broadband Benefit Program, we are investing more than $10 billion in American students and households. These investments will help more Americans access online education, healthcare, and employment resources. They will help close the Homework Gap for students nationwide and give so many more households the ability to connect, communicate, and more fully participate in modern life.”

“The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has made access to the Internet more important than ever before, including for millions of America’s students,” said FCC Commissioner Brendan Carr, also in a prepared statement. “Last year, several organizations estimated that it would require approximately $6.8 billion in support to ensure that every school kid in this country has access to a high-speed Internet connection. That is why my priority in this proceeding has been to ensure that the $7.2 billion initiative we stand up today focuses on bringing all of those still unconnected students across the digital divide.”

“Internet access is a necessity,” said FCC Commissioner Geoffrey Starks. “Beginning in March 2020, school for many children transformed into a virtual institution nearly overnight—locking millions of students without broadband and adequate devices out of the classroom. Though many schools and other organizations have worked to close the gap, Boston Consulting Group reported that as of January 2021, up to 12 million K-12 students remain digitally underserved.1 And the problem is most significant in communities of color. The divide disproportionately affects Black, Latinx, and Native American students. Students of color, who make up 40% of the population, collectively make up 54% of the divide.”

The program will be administered by the Universal Service Administrative Company (USAC), which also administers the E-rate program.

The complete details of the FCC’s rules can be found at fcc.gov.

About the Author

David Nagel is the former editorial director of 1105 Media's Education Group and editor-in-chief of THE Journal, STEAM Universe, and Spaces4Learning. A 30-year publishing veteran, Nagel has led or contributed to dozens of technology, art, marketing, media, and business publications.

He can be reached at [email protected]. You can also connect with him on LinkedIn at https://www.linkedin.com/in/davidrnagel/ .