New America’s Open Technology Institute Highlights Innovative School District Solutions to the Remote Learning Gap and Needed E-Rate Reform in New Report

Press Release
Shutterstock / Rido
Nov. 17, 2020

Today, New America’s Open Technology Institute and its Wireless Future Project published a report detailing the impact of the remote learning gap on K-12 education and profiling a variety of innovative strategies by school districts to connect students without internet access at home. The coronavirus pandemic has revealed deep inequities that have left millions of students in the United States without the broadband access they need for remote learning. While this “homework gap” has undermined educational equity for years, school closures and the necessity of remote learning online has made the problem a priority for schools and parents nationwide. 

The report—The Online Learning Equity Gap: Innovative Solutions to Connect All Students at Home—details the nature, scope, and harmful impacts of the remote learning gap. It profiles school districts and libraries that have used a variety of creative wireless broadband technologies to extend broadband access to their students and communities.These initiatives include:

  • Neighborhood Wi-Fi networks built by school districts in partnership with their municipality. Examples include Lindsay Unified School District, a farmworker community in California’s Central Valley; Council Bluffs, Iowa, which has prioritized its lowest-income neighborhoods; and San Jose, CA, which has opened its expanding community Wi-Fi network to the public as well.
  • Wireless networks in Texas, Maryland, California, and beyond that leverage shared and free spectrum available as part of the new Citizens Broadband Radio Service (CBRS), as well as vacant TV channels (mostly in rural districts), to connect students directly to school networks using commercial-grade mobile broadband technology.
  • Expanding the number of Wi-Fi hotspots accessible to students at home by equipping school buses and parking them near students without internet access, as well as by adding Wi-Fi hotspots in public housing, community centers, and as library services.

Finally, the report reiterates calls from OTI and the State of Colorado for the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to use its authority to increase E-Rate funding and to grant school districts the flexibility to reprogram E-Rate funds to extend connectivity to students at home. Based on interviews with school leaders, the report finds that the current FCC’s refusal to act is significantly hindering efforts by local districts and communities to connect students at home with cost-effective and sustainable wireless strategies. The FCC should make these common-sense adjustments and Congress should provide both substantially more funding and a clarification that E-Rate funds can be used to close the learning equity gap.

The following quote can be attributed to Michael Calabrese, director of the Wireless Future Project at New America’s Open Technology Institute and one of the authors of the report:

“The pandemic has demonstrated that school districts across the country have a common need to find effective and financially sustainable ways to extend broadband connectivity to students who lack it and thereby close the nation’s destructive homework gap. 

“One hopeful trend is a variety of innovative efforts by local school districts to leverage Wi-Fi and other low-cost wireless broadband technologies to connect students for remote learning in a sustainable way that addresses the homework gap longer term. 

“Schools, students, and parents now need Congress and the Federal Communications Commission to do their part to increase funding and clarify that local schools have the flexibility to use their E-Rate subsidies to connect students at home.”

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