Four Key Lessons from District Leaders Tackling the Homework Gap

Blog Post
July 1, 2020

Last week, New America’s Open Technology Institute (OTI) convened a number of broadband experts and district leaders to talk through innovative approaches to addressing the ‘homework gap,’ a term that refers to the educational disparities caused by inequitable access to home Internet among preK-12 students. This issue has long caused major disparities in educational outcomes and experiences between students who do and do not have reliable, high speed home Internet connection, the appropriate devices, and the digital literacy support needed to use those devices. After the COVID-19 crisis shut forced schools into remote learning this spring, district leaders were left grappling with the severely-exacerbated challenges of un- and under-connectedness among students and teachers.

Now, health and education leaders across the country are weighing their options for the coming school year while having to consider the sustaining challenges of broadband access. Though many are anticipating some form of blended learning—in which schools are partially online and partially in person—this may look different for different districts. What’s more, federal responses to this crisis, such as CARES Act funding for schools, means a number of different options are available for addressing these various concerns.

Among the experts on the webinar were FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel, who has long been an advocate for federal broadband programs such as E-Rate, which has seen a renewed push recently, amid calls to better support schools in expanding Internet access. Facilitated by OTI Director Sarah Morris, the panel included Vickie Robinson of Airband USA at Microsoft, David Fringer, chief technology officer for the Council Bluffs Community School District in Iowa, chief technology officer at East Side Union High School District in Oakland, CA, and Tina Hike-Hubbard, chief communications and community engagement officer for Baltimore City Public Schools. Below are a few key takeaways from their conversation.

  • The digital divide is much steeper than we previously thought. Before the school closures this year, the number commonly referenced in talking about the number of un- and underconnected U.S. students was around 2 million. As Commissioner Rosenworcel and others on the webinar explained, this number is actually somewhere between 7 and 12 million, or about 15% of U.S. K-12 students. Especially with Black and Brown students, students of low-income families, and students in rural areas overrepresented among those without access, this is a larger and more nuanced issue than those outside broadband advocacy groups have previously known. (A report released earlier this week from Common Sense Media and Boston Consulting Group also provides evidence on the severity of the problem).
  • There is no one right way to do distance learning. All three district leaders on the panel—like all district leaders across the country—are considering the different options available to them for addressing challenges that are nearly universal. But, because each district, school, and classroom is unique in the makeup, needs, and existing challenges, there is no one-size-fits-all answer to remote instruction. The important part, according to the panelists, is to understand all of the options available to districts and work to communicate intentionally with students, families, and teachers to ensure their needs are understood and met.
  • Teacher professional development is needed, and there are options for funding it. Many of the panelists focused on their need to support teachers having to now teach remotely—support that might include anything from technical and device IT support to digital instructional coaching. To fund this increased demand for professional development, many are looking to use one-time CARES Act funding. More on CARES Act funds and how schools can spend them can be found here.
  • E-Rate flexibility is key. Finally, district leaders underscored the push to extend E-Rate, a federal broadband program designed to provide schools with reduced-cost Internet services. The program has been around since 1996 and has made it possible for schools around the country to purchase Internet to be used on school campuses. Now, in light of school closures, there is a renewed push among broadband advocates, including OTI and others, to extend the program, allowing schools to use those funds to provide WiFi hotspots for students at home. “This is an incredible tool at our disposal,” said Rosenworcel, “the rules, structures, knowledge, and agency are all there to help E-Rate meet this moment.”

A full recording of the webinar can be found here.

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Digital Divide