Coronavirus relief bill includes $7.2 billion to target ‘homework gap’

With the coronavirus relief bill the final expected to get the final green light Wednesday in Congress, setting aside $7.17 billion to help students and teachers get online in an ambitious effort to address the “homework gap.”

The pandemic exacerbated long-running inequality in access to the Internet throughout the United States.

The funding will allow elementary schools, high schools and libraries to purchase Wi-Fi hotspots, modems and routers for students, and also fund the Internet service that those devices use. It will be distributed through the Federal Communications Commission’s E-rate program, which has long helped schools and libraries obtain affordable Internet access.

Geoffrey Starks, the Democratic FCC commissioner, said the funding is necessary to ensure that all students keep learning. He said he recently met with Detroit middle school students and heard firsthand about how they’re being “locked out of the virtual classroom.”

“They told me that a large share of their classmates cannot participate, and many have quit virtual learning out of frustration with slow broadband speeds and inadequate devices,” Starks told me in an email. “Those students are not alone.”

The funding comes as a year of closed schools has highlighted the costs of the digital divide.

An estimated 12 million American children lacking basic broadband were unable to connect to online school at a time when that was the only option in many districts. Those students can’t get this year back—but lawmakers and advocates hope this funding will be distributed quickly so they do not fall further behind.

“Throughout this pandemic, we have asked our students to shoulder an enormous burden and continue their education from home,” Sen. Edward Markey, D-Mass., said in a statement. “This funding will help ensure that the ‘homework gap’ does not grow into a damaging learning and opportunity gap for our children.”

The pandemic is increasing the pressure for Washington to address the digital divide.

Online services have been a lifeline during shutdowns over the past year. And even as society reopens, Americans are expected to be more dependent on the Internet than they were pre-pandemic.

The money is a victory for children’s advocates who have long pressed Washington to take up some programs. But they say their next goal is to ensure that the funding is effectively implemented, and that there are permanent programs to help youngsters stay online.

Jim Steyer, the founder of Common Sense Media who advocates on behalf of children, told me the funding was a “huge” victory. However, he said it’s imperative that Washington moves quickly to put the money to work, especially after millions of children effectively lost a year of education. He said it will be challenging to distribute devices to families this spring, but he is hopeful that they will be in a better place by fall.

“We need to get the kids the devices and broadband they need, and put this money to work right away,” he said.

The funding is part of a broader effort to address Americans’ access to the Internet during the pandemic. As my colleague Tony Romm has detailed, the last stimulus package created a program allowing low-income Americans to get $50 subsidies toward their Internet bills at a time when such connections are essential for medical appointments, signing up for vaccination and other important tasks.

The relief package addresses additional tech problems that arose during the pandemic.

In addition to broadband, the package tackles some of the technology problems plaguing local government systems over the past year, as my colleague Tonya Riley has reported. Government websites and systems for registering for unemployment benefits have crashed because of a surge in demand for online services.

The bill includes $2 billion in funding to help state unemployment systems distribute funding more effectively, which could be used to limit fraud and bolster websites to keep up with the demand for benefits.

The package includes $1 billion for the General Services Administration’s Technology Modernization Fund, which directs funding to federal agencies seeking to update and strengthen their technology systems. It also allocates $200 million for the U.S. Digital Service and $150 million for the Federal Citizens Service Fund. Both focus on modernizing government systems.

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