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Big Gaps Remain in Students’ Home Internet Access, Survey Reveals

When the pandemic forced schools to close last year, every student at Chagrin Falls Exempted Village Schools in Ohio already had a device, and most had access to the internet at home. As a result, the district’s director of technology, Mike Daugherty, was cautiously optimistic that they were well prepared for remote learning.

He quickly learned that having access to the internet and having the ability for an entire family to join hours-long video conferences were two different things. In many cases, when students’ connectivity fell short, Daugherty was left to urge families to upgrade their service.

While the country moves toward connecting more households to the internet than ever before, insufficient bandwidth remains a challenge for school districts and limits what tools students can use at home. A survey of 400 districts newly released by the Consortium for School Networking, or CoSN, underscores that basic access to the internet is not the barrier in many households – it’s an inability to use bandwidth-intensive content, such as video conferencing and streaming, that many districts would like to make a part of students’ lessons.

The survey of association members, who are district IT leaders, released last month found that 94 percent of districts faced challenges with videoconferencing during remote learning. For most of those districts (66 percent) the problems were caused by insufficient bandwidth. Respondents listed slow connections and multiple users as the top technical problems they faced.

“We saw that over and over again where a family was working from home due to COVID and they’re all on a generic, basic internet connection and nobody can get anything done,” Daugherty said. “That was such a struggle for us.”

Part of the problem is that the federally recommended broadband thresholds for households don’t meet the needs of remote learning, said CoSN CEO Keith Krueger. Families may have plenty of bandwidth to stream or download content, he said, but not enough to upload. And most households have two or more students, compounding the problem.

Inequities Persist

The experience has caused digital equity to rank as a top concern among districts’ IT leaders. Nearly all the survey respondents (97 percent) said concerns about quality of students’ home access increased. And the number of districts providing off-campus services doubled compared to the year before, reaching 95 percent.

Equity will certainly be on the minds of district leaders as they decide what educational technology to use moving forward, Krueger said.

“The good news is [bandwidth is] better in schools,” he said. Yet, “from a vendor perspective, they are going to have to think more inclusively.”

Inside school buildings, districts have made huge strides toward improving internet access. According to the survey, the majority of responding districts (61 percent) met the FCC’s long-term broadband goal, set in 2014. Three years ago, fewer than a third of districts met that standard, Krueger said.

Having students back in the building will help schools in the Chagrin school district, Daugherty said, especially since the district has a relatively small IT staff that isn’t equipped to provide home support.

Prior to the pandemic, Daugherty’s department fielded around five to 10 technical problems a day, mostly from students who broke or forgot their Chromebooks. During remote learning, that jumped to around 30 to 50 per day.

But home connectivity remains a concern because some practices from the pandemic will continue, Daugherty said.

He expects that his district will continue sending devices home with students over the summer break to lessen the summer academic slide. He also expects teachers to continue to record their lessons so students can access them later as needed.

Aside from equity concerns, district technology leaders listed improving cybersecurity and student data privacy as their top technology priorities.

According to the survey, more than three-quarters of districts (77 percent) do not have a full-time employee dedicated to network security. And only half of districts require cybersecurity training for the entire staff.

Other challenges IT leaders listed during the survey were:

  • Budget constraints and lack of resources
  • Lack of access to professional development
  • Existence of silos in the district

“There has to be a passionate advocacy on the part of technology leaders to articulate what we can do better by making sure we have equity built in,” Krueger said. “Digital isn’t going away. There’s a whole lot of things we can do a lot better, even at school.”

Photo: Alpha Wireless AW3170 panel antennas deployed in a private school district network near the Dallas-Fort Worth metro area. (Credit: Business Wire via AP)

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A Changed K-12 Market: What Education CEOs See on the Horizon

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The Challenge for Companies: Supporting Teachers in a Chaotic Era

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The Ed Tech So Valuable That It Will Outlive the Pandemic

An EdWeek Market Brief survey asked district leaders what kinds of ed-tech they will continue using after the COVID-19 pandemic.

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Why Do Ed-Tech Products Soar in Some Districts, But Flop in Others?

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The EdTech Genome Project aims to give districts more accurate, granular comparisons of what ed-tech products work in what kinds of schools.

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How School Districts Will Spend Money From the New Federal Stimulus

How will K-12 districts spend federal stimulus funding?

School systems are expected to have broad latitude to spend money from the American Rescue Plan on classroom and non-academic needs.

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A new class of special purpose acquisition companies could give rise to a constellation of publicly traded education companies, with more visibility and greater access to capital.

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Bipartisan Legislation Would Allow E-Rate Funding for School Bus Wi-Fi

Ben Ray Lujan

A bill recently introduced in the U.S. Congress would make make E-Rate money available to support Wi-Fi on school buses, the latest of several recent recent efforts to expand student internet connectivity outside school hours.

Sens. Ben Ray Lujan, D-N.M., and Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., have introduced the legislation, which would require the Federal Communications Commission to issue regulations to make Wi-Fi access on school buses eligible for support under the E-Rate program no later than 180 days after enactment. Under the bill, schools would be reimbursed for equipping buses with Wi-Fi.

The E-Rate program is funded at $4 billion annually, and allows schools to receive reimbursement for certain internet services provided on campus.

If policymakers provide more financial support for off-campus wireless services, it could increase the ability of students to make use of companies’ ed-tech tools, apps, and platforms, including on long bus rides where students have access to laptops and other devices, if this bill gets enacted.

The bill is aimed, in part, at promoting digital equity for rural and tribal communities in states like New Mexico, according to Lujan’s office.

Approximately one-quarter of New Mexico’s over 350,000 students don’t have affordable internet, according to a statement by the New Mexico Homework Gap Team, which describes itself as an ad hoc group of professionals who support narrowing the digital divide for K-12 students in the state.

A December study by the Alliance for Excellent Education estimated that almost 17 million students nationwide lack home internet access to complete school assignments.

“For rural and tribal students who travel hours to and from school, these commutes can be valuable time accessing the internet, completing assignments, and conducting research,” Lujan said in a statement. “Empowering our schools to equip buses with Wi-Fi is an opportunity to uplift our students, tackle the homework gap, and help alleviate the financial strain that too many families are experiencing at home.”

If passed, the legislation would give schools more flexibility in terms of figuring out how they can best use ed tech to promote equity, said Amina Fazlullah, equity policy director for Common Sense Media, a nonprofit dedicated to promoting safe and effective technology use for children.

“Every community has different layers of barriers to equitable access to education related to technology,” she said in an interview. “Having that flexibility ultimately in the E-Rate program will be incredibly useful for schools where students have long commutes.”

But Fazlullah suggested that the ed-tech funding expansion outlined in the Lujan-Graham bill shouldn’t substitute for other potential federal initiatives to support costs for students’ home connectivity.

It remains to be seen whether the FCC will act decisively on some lawmakers’ and education advocates’ calls for a long-term, dedicated funding source to support students’ home connectivity.

The COVID-19 stimulus package approved earlier this month allocated $7 billion to the FCC for the creation of what is being called the “Emergency Connectivity Fund,” separate from E-Rate, to pay for high-speed internet and devices used off campus.

The commission also recently announced plans for a policy that, among many other things, would allow school districts to apply for reimbursement for costs they have paid for students and teachers to access broadband at home.

FCC Acting Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel, in an interview with Education Week this month, said the agency remains in the “process of evaluating how we can update the current E-Rate program to meet the moment students and families find themselves in.” She spoke after the agency in February issued a request for public comments on whether E-Rate funds could be used to support remote learning during the pandemic.

In 2018, then a U.S. congressman, Lujan became familiar with how Wi-Fi operates on a school bus when he attended a “Rolling Study Halls” event. Hosted by Santa Fe Schools and funded by Google, the event took a Wi Fi-equipped bus to a Native American pueblo in New Mexico, Tom Ryan, chief information and strategy officer for the district, noted in an email.

In addition to Santa Fe, the Albuquerque district is one other school system that has outfitted school buses with mobile Wi-Fi units, installing hot spots on 80 buses across the area as of October.

Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt., has introduced legislation similar to the Lujan-Graham bill in the House.

The legislation has picked up endorsements from the National Education Association, Competitive Carriers Association, Free Press, Public Knowledge, School Superintendents Association, Association of Educational Service Agencies, Association of Latino Administrators and Superintendents, National Rural Education Association, National Rural Education Advocacy Consortium, and the State Educational Technology Directors Association.

Photo: Sen. Ben Ray Lujan, D-N.M., is pictured on June 29, 2018, visiting the Kewa Pueblo, a Native American settlement southwest of Santa Fe, N.M.  The program was called “Rolling Study Halls” which was funded by Google.


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The FCC’s $7 Billion Fund to Address the ‘Homework Gap’: 6 Key Issues to Watch

Sam Urban Wittrock, left, an advance placement World History Teacher at W.W. Samuell High School, displays a wifi hot spot that are being handed out to students in Dallas, Thursday, April 9, 2020. Dallas I.S.D. is handing out the devices along with wifi hotspots to students in need so that they can connect online for their continued education amid the COVID-19 health crisis. (AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez)

The Federal Communications Commission has a new $7 billion pot for schools to recoup the costs of paying for student and teacher access to broadband at home — and now the agency must figure out how to distribute the money.

Since the money came through, the FCC has started the process, recently announcing that it is formally requesting public comment for the new program aimed at addressing the so-called “homework gap.”

The COVID-19 stimulus package approved earlier this month allocated $7 billion to the FCC for the creation of what is being called the “Emergency Connectivity Fund” to pay for high-speed internet and devices used off campus.

The agency has 60 days from enactment of the relief measure to get final rules in place. That means school districts could start applying for money as early as mid-May or early June, said Reg Leichty, founding partner of the education consulting group Foresight Law+Policy.

School systems looking for help covering the costs of keeping students connected earned a major win with the federal funding, said Leichty, but it won’t serve as a long-term solution for remote learning since the money isn’t permanent.

“It’s not a comprehensive plan,” he said, “but it is a huge leap forward.”

The FCC’s request for comments about the new policy surfaced a number of key questions. They include how the $7 billion in funding can be distributed equitably; whether it should create broadband adoption goals, benchmark speeds and data thresholds; what type of devices qualify; if services and equipment can be used for educational purposes only; and what the bidding process should look like.

The answers to those questions have implications for companies across the ed-tech market — not only those focused directly on providing connectivity to schools and homes, but also those whose digital products would benefit from students being able to connect more easily.

Here are six critical issues that companies keeping track of the FCC program should watch for:

While some questions remain unanswered, this much is clear: Wi Fi hotspots, modems, routers, devices that combine a modem and router, along with laptop and tablet computers all qualify for funding.

What about smartphones? The FCC says nope, and has proposed that all eligible devices need to be able to support video conferencing platforms and other software necessary “to ensure full participation in remote learning activities.” And that’s where the FCC believes smartphones don’t make the cut, writing in the public notice that such devices do not sufficiently allow students, school staff, and library patrons to meaningfully participate in remote learning activities.”

And what about desktops? The FCC is asking for folks to weigh in on that one: “Although not specifically identified, should desktop computers be eligible for funding as ‘similar end-user devices’ that are capable of connecting to ‘advanced telecommunications and information services?’”

The FCC also wants to know if it should impose minimum system requirements for eligible devices, and whether it should require devices to be Wi-Fi enabled and have video and camera functions for remote learning. 

The FCC wants to know how far back it should allow applicants seeking funding to recoup costs. In its request for public comment, the agency’s Wireline Competition Bureau proposed that the full FCC allow eligibility to begin on Jan 27. 2020,  the date U.S. health officials determined coronavirus to be a public health emergency. But the agency also asked if  another date should be considered.

There has been some disagreement among school systems on a date, according to public comments the FCC received in a different remote learning inquiry. The FCC noted that it has received comments as part of that other inquiry from the New York City Department of Education advocating for a reimbursement period to begin in March 2020, when most schools switched to remote learning. But others, including the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction, have made the case in public comments for a July 1, 2020 date that coincides with the beginning of the E-rate funding year.

Leicthy said this is a big question for the agency to answer since many districts have spent the last full year scrambling to find money to buy Wi Fi hotspots and devices, and don’t want to be “penalized when it comes to being able to offsetting those costs.

“You should be able to look back to cover some costs incurred and one reasonable way to do that is to look at the entire 2020 and 2021 school year,” he said.

Since many districts have already entered into contracts for broadband and devices for students to use at home, the FCC is proposing to allow some school systems to bypass the competitive bidding process for purposes of seeking reimbursement through the homework gap fund.

Instead of going through the formal bidding process, the FCC says it could allow those districts to simply certify that they have complied with state and local procurement requirements. 

And for those districts that have yet to purchase broadband or devices for off-campus use, the FCC is asking in its request for comments whether it should adopt a streamlined competitive bidding process, which could include reducing from 28 days to 14 days the time that a district must wait to enter into a contract with a service provider after posting an RFP. 

There’s also some disagreement among school systems and organizations about this. The FCC has established a benchmark of 25 Mbps downstream and 3 Mbps upstream as adequate to support remote learning.

But the Los Angeles Unified School District told the agency in public comments in another remote learning inquiry that those speeds are “inadequate for supporting uninterrupted teaching and learning, particularly in households in densely populated urban areas where multiple students are often struggling to stay connected.” The L.A. school district did not specify speeds it thought would be suitable.

However, INCOMPAS, the internet and competitive networks association, a D.C.-based trade organization, wrote to the FCC recommending that the benchmark speeds of at least 25/3 as the minimum service standard.

So the FCC is asking in its request for comments if what should the downstream and upstream speed targets be? And what Internet speeds are necessary for people with disabilities who use telephone relay service and video relay services?

School districts have been vocal about the need for federal funds dedicated specifically to off-campus connectivity. 

Most were expecting that money to come from an FCC change to its longstanding position that funds from the E-Rate program can’t be used to help with internet access in students’ homes. That was the expectation after the agency initiated a request for public comment on the issue back in February. The general thinking was that the FCC would roll over unused E-rate funds to create an emergency pot of money that districts could tap sometime this spring or summer. 

But Congress all but sidelined that discussion for now by approving the $7 billion as part of the latest stimulus plan.  

So now expanding E-rate to cover off-campus connectivity needs will get put on a back burner of sorts while the FCC works through delegating the $7 billion that Congress has appropriated. The FCC is going to “wait and reassess the situation before making a decision on E-rate,” said Leichty. 

FCC Interim Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel, in an interview with Education Week this month, said the agency is still reviewing comments, and remains in the “process of evaluating how we can update the current E-rate program to meet the moment students and families find themselves in.”

The FCC’s public notice cites research from a nonprofit organization that estimates it would cost between $6 billion and $12 billion to cover costs for broadband and devices in the first year. So it’s not immediately clear how long Congress’ $7 billion infusion will meet the connectivity needs of schools and families.

Demand for reimbursement is expected to be high through the first funding window, according to the FCC’s notice. But if there’s leftover money, the FCC is suggesting that a new application window be opened the second quarter of every year until the money’s gone.

Once that happens, future funding remains uncertain to help curb the cost of providing mobile Wi Fi hot spots and broadband for students. 

“This emergency connectivity fund would be the driving factor for any change over time, and if the FCC decides they need more funding they could follow up and roll over unused E-rate funds at that time,” said Leichty.  

Photo: A teacher in a Dallas high school last year displays one of the Wi Fi hot spots that were being given out to students so that they could connect online during COVID-19. (AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez)


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How New Data-Privacy Expectations Could Impact Education Companies

State laws affecting the deletion of student information and other practices can have a big impact on education companies, says Tyler Park of the Future of Privacy Forum.

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