As Congress ties the bow on a long-awaited and contentious coronavirus relief package, superintendents, principals and educators are disappointed – though not surprised – by how little aid it includes for their efforts to reopen the country’s public school system for millions of children who have been learning remotely since the pandemic shuttered schools in March.
What stunned many of them, though, was that dedicated funding to help the estimated 12 million children with little to no internet access had vanished – funding that, during a months-long negotiating process rife with partisan bickering, garnered wide support from both sides of the aisle.
“There was relatively broad, bipartisan support from Capitol Hill to recognize the critical need to support learners remotely,” says Noelle Ellerson Ng, associate executive director of advocacy and governance at AASA, The School Superintendents Association, about a plan to fund the Federal Communications Commission’s E-Rate program, which provides discounted internet to schools and libraries.
“This was a huge missed opportunity,” she says. “This was like our unicorn that had bipartisan support, and this is what went away in negotiations? What happened?”
The $900 billion relief package, which Congress was poised to pass Monday night, includes $54 billion for K-12 education to help states reopen their schools for in-person learning and another $2.75 billion for governors to spend on K-12 education at their discretion.
Notably, the figure is far less than the $175 to $240 billion that national education organizations have estimated they need in order to provide personal protective equipment, reorganize buildings and classrooms, and hire additional staff to comply with social distancing policies, repair poor ventilation systems, reconfigure school bus routes and help students with the most severe academic, social and emotional learning losses catch up. Those groups had also asked, separately, for $4 billion for the E-Rate program.
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The total for K-12 education in the package Congress is set to pass this week is even less than previous proposals from the White House and Senate Republicans, which pegged education aid at $105 billion.
And while the recovery package includes $7 billion for broadband, it doesn’t specifically address helping low-income students, who are more likely to be learning remotely, access reliable internet, say education groups that had been pushing for the new relief package to include $12 billion for E-Rate, as a previous version from House Democrats did.
The $7 billion for broadband includes $3 billion in emergency funding to help low-income families access high-speed internet through a separate FCC program, but it’s neither a permanent nor comprehensive plan, they say. Instead, it would extend for a few months a $50 coupon for low-income households or $75 coupon for tribal households for basic broadband services, with no requirement that a K-12 student be part of the household.
Ronn Nozoe, head of the National Association of Secondary School Principals, called the relief package “woefully inadequate,” and took aim at the decision to not include funding for the E-Rate program.
“The pandemic exposed the digital inequities among our students,” he says. Sufficient, reliable broadband and device access is an essential condition for high-quality education. Zeroing out E-rate still regards that access as a luxury.”
Education policy makers have been begging for Congress to supercharge the E-Rate program for years, lamenting how serious the connectivity gap is for the country’s most vulnerable students. But the coronavirus pandemic laid bare that reality as schools across the country shuttered and students struggled to transition to virtual learning, which required reliable internet to join video conferencing platforms, watch online lessons and log and email assignments.
Policy organizations estimate 12 to 16 million children lack internet access or devices that allow them to learn remotely, a burden that falls disproportionately on Black, Latino and Native American students.
With the pandemic still full throttle, millions of students continue learning remotely, including those in three-quarters of the country’s biggest school districts. Amid little federal assistance, school districts have been forced to get creative, equipping school buses with WiFi and parking them in different neighborhoods and boosting the WiFi signal in schools and libraries so students can work in the parking lots. Until the pandemic is under control, schools will continue to need to use online learning platforms, likely into the next school year.
“The pandemic didn’t create the homework gap,” Ellerson Ng says. “The pandemic just ripped it wide open. It was education’s worst kept secret and now it’s out in the limelight and somehow still able to be ignored.”