For the past four months, COVID-19 has disrupted almost every aspect of human activity around the globe. One of the hardest-hit facets of life in the U.S. has been K-12 education. In particular, the underprivileged students who seriously lack the necessary resources are finding it difficult to navigate the sudden shift toward online schools and virtual classrooms. Schools need immediate assistance from the government to procure computers, tablets, and provide reliable broadband connectivity for kids to continue learning during the nationwide lockdown. In order to better understand some of the ways and means to make this happen, I reached out to two people who have been advocating for mobile technology to improve online education for schools kids for more than a decade — Qualcomm’s Dean Brenner Senior Vice President, Spectrum Strategy & Technology Policy, and Alice Tornquist, Vice President, Government Affairs. The key seems to be utilizing a mix of existing and new legislation to ensure enough funds are allocated for the right priorities.
Unforeseen situation for k-12 schools
There is no question that mandatory lockdowns necessitated by COVID-19 have resulted in many unexpected consequences—all schools needing to move to online education, for example. It hit home for me, as my son’s middle school took more than two weeks to start any academic activity online. By contrast, my college-aged daughter’s full-fledged online classes started almost the next day. This unfortunate reality is in part the result of limited investment for K-12 online education. The National Center for Education Statistics estimated that the USA invested $706 billion in public elementary and secondary schools in 2015-2016. Probably, most of that money was used to improve the physical infrastructure in schools. But when classrooms needed to become virtual, little of those investments could be leveraged. According the Associated Press, in the USA, 17% of students do not have access to computers at home and 18% do not have home access to broadband internet.
The immediate need is investing in digital infrastructure and enabling schools to provide devices and connectivity to kids on a priority basis, according to Dean Brenner. They require computers, laptops, and Chromebooks. In addition, these devices need reliable broadband connectivity, which can be achieved by either buying broadband-enabled devices, or through Mi-Fi devices (Hotspots) with appropriate data service plans. These devices do not just aid basic education, but also stimulate young minds to explore and innovate.
Options to fund online education
The big question then, is how to fund all these needs in a timely manner? There are a number of options which Dean Brenner and Alice Tornquist laid out, including utilizing both existing programs and new legislation. Their main concern is getting the problem addressed as quickly as possible, more than favoring one particular approach over another.
- Utilizing the existing E-Rate program
E-Rate (aka Universal Service Program for Schools and Libraries) is a federal program that stems from the Telecommunications Act of 1996 and is being ably administered by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). The program has been a tremendous success: it has helped a large number of schools in the country build classrooms, libraries, laboratories, as well as equip them with state-of-the-art technology, high-speed internet connectivity, etc. Historically, the program has not funded any off-premise initiatives. However, since the classrooms have been forced to go virtual, a case can be made that some funds from the E-Rate program could be used to enable online classrooms, while still adhering to the spirit of the law. According to Alice Tornquist, “The program has usually seen about $1 Billion worth of funds left unused every year and buying online education tools would be an excellent way to spend that money.” Congress could resolve any ambiguity in the E-rate statute by passing a law to authorize the program to cover connectivity and devices for home use, as well as to provide emergency funding.
- New emergency appropriations for education
Mr. Brenner also told me about an ongoing effort to get emergency funding for this unforeseen situation through a new program. He said “We have seen a lot of traction in Congress for an emergency appropriation targeted specifically for education. The amount being discussed is around $2 Billion.” He added, “Congress could enact a legislation that gives full authority to the FCC to set up a program very quickly (7-10 days), and to provide funding for this new program to enable schools to provide connectivity and devices for kids. Such an approach would ensure that the kids who are in dire need get immediate assistance and can complete their current academic year with minimal disruption.
For the people doubting the effectiveness of federally funded off-campus programs, there have been many successful state and federal pilot projects, including the ones funded through E-Rate in 2010-2011. The US Government Accountability Office (GAO) studied these pilots and filed a report in July 2019 on their benefits. Again, Mr. Brenner added, “The viability of such programs is already proven, the time is now for Congress to act without delay and fund them.”
- Allocations from the CARES act
On March 27, 2020, the US Congress enacted the “Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act’’ or the ‘‘CARES Act” that allocates $2.2 Trillion for individuals and businesses. This law includes a $13.5 Billion allocation for educational purposes. Luckily, devices and connectivity are among the 12 permitted uses for the funds. While the specific rules for administering funds are still being drafted by the Dept of Education, schools will have to wrestle with how best to prioritize use of the funds. The law stipulates all the money be used within a year or so.
Although making schools ready for the new school year might be a higher priority, including disinfecting premises, implementing new rules for social distancing, improved safety of students, teachers, and staff, there should also be enough funds to allocate resources for online learning. Considering that there is a reasonable risk of a resurgent virus outbreak in the fall, it would seem prudent that schools prepare for the possibility of renewed lockdowns.
- Continued funding for online learning and educational needs
It is evident that the COVID-19 crisis will have a long-lasting impact on all industries, sectors, and services, including education. The U.S. Congress recognizes that the CARES Act will not be enough and has already started working on a supplementary relief bill. The educational community has submitted a request for about $175 Billion in funds to Congress. Nobody knows how much of that will be awarded in the upcoming bill, but continued funding is a high priority.
A silver lining of this educational disruption could be that once both kids and teachers adapt to online learning, they may find it useful to augment regular in-class learning with off-campus online enrichment programs. Investments being made to mitigate the current COVID-19 crisis might prove useful in the long run as well.
The current pandemic has thrown the country’s educational system into disarray. K-12 education is one of the areas most impacted, as it was not prepared for the transition to online learning. Underprivileged children who lack the tools to learn from home, such as computers and reliable connectivity, are suffering the most. The educational system needs to leverage funds from existing federal programs and new legislation in the works to address the issue as quickly as possible. Investments made now for online education will not only help in the near-term but will also prepare K-12 schools for possible disruptions in the future. There is also a good possibility that online learning will become part of the school experience, supplementing in-class learning.
The post Mitigating COVID-19-related k-12 school disruptions with federal funding appeared first on RCR Wireless News.