Access to the Internet and personal devices were once privileges in schools. Today, they are essential drivers of education.
“When a family asks us for help accessing the Internet, it’s the same as asking for a book,” said Scott McDaniel, director of technology services for Battle Ground Public Schools.
“It’s no different than asking for a pencil.”
A federal funding program, the Emergency Connectivity Fund has helped provide technology resources to facilitate distance education for disadvantaged students and those in rural areas throughout the pandemic – but it has a problem.
By June of this year, the vast majority of its funds will be exhausted.
What is the Connectivity Emergency Fund?
The sudden pivot to distance learning in March 2020 put rural communities at a disadvantage – an issue that has forced school districts to seek help and funding from county, state and federal agencies to level the playing field. Game.
Among the series of new funding programs launched to tackle this problem is the Emergency Connectivity Fund, a $ 7.17 billion aid package launched by the Federal Communications Commission as part of the US bailout. of the 2021 Congress.
Rather than distributing aid at the state level, which can be skewed to benefit mainly centralized urban areas, the fund allowed money to be allocated and demanded by individual school districts who knew how to best support their communities.
While similar programs, such as Federal Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Assistance (ESSER) funding, are designed to support districts for several years, the benefits provided by the Emergency Connectivity Fund are one-time.
On June 30, funding for school districts and libraries across the country will expire. There will still be money, but not enough to maintain the Internet connections established in a majority of rural areas.
“We have benefited so much from federal stimulus funds in so many ways,” Vancouver Public Schools Chief Financial Officer Brett Blechschmidt said. “But it’s not as if there aren’t needs that change over time. We have discovered from this pandemic that there is never enough money. “
The roughly $ 5 million allocated to Vancouver’s public schools was mainly used to purchase just over 12,000 Chromebooks for students: a necessary refresh that Blechschmidt said the district had planned but will now be able to defer by a few. years.
For districts that serve more rural communities over a larger area, such as the Battle Ground Public Schools, the resources provided by the Emergency Connectivity Fund were even more critical.
“There is no money for us that is specifically reserved for technology. It has to compete with other things, which isn’t necessarily bad, but what you end up doing is making decisions that might not be ideal for learning, ”McDaniel said.
“(The Emergency Connectivity Fund) is a game-changer. We can offer a competitive educational program compared to more urban neighborhoods.
Unlike larger districts like Vancouver and Evergreen, Battle Ground is not backed by a technology tax that goes directly to taxpayer dollars to improve broadband or personal devices for students. Without the approximately $ 1 million Emergency Connectivity Fund, McDaniel said, Battle Ground would not have been able to provide the distance learning needed during the early stages of the pandemic.
When current funding expires, the district will again be faced with the reality that the technology now demanded by modern education may not be able to last until the next school year without additional federal funding.
“Technology in itself is not a driver for improving education, but it is an accelerator of other good teaching practices. It takes it to the next level, ”McDaniel said.
“If there is no funding to support it – but you expect to provide this education – then other things will have to be cut. It is absolutely critical. When that ends, it will require some of those difficult conversations again. “
While school districts expect they will return to full-time in-person learning in the future, the latest wave of the omicron variant is actively proving that the level of certainty we were hoping for in 2022 may not be. still there.
And, as McDaniel said, there is no sign of the end of the demand for internet access and technology that modern education needs, whether it is – pandemic or no pandemic.
Efforts to support the program
On August 26, a coalition of school districts in Puget Sound Education Services District 124 wrote a letter to Senator Maria Cantwell – who chairs the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation – pleading for an additional $ 40 billion in funding. to maintain the Emergency Connectivity Fund for an additional five years.
Signings include superintendents from some of the state’s largest districts: Seattle Public Schools, Tacoma Public Schools, and more.
“The public school is a public good, and states should be able to provide it. It’s crazy that low-income families have to pay for technology, a key part of their education. This will only widen the achievement gap, ”said Phillip Lovell, associate executive director of All4Ed, a national Washington-based nonprofit that has helped school districts raise money from the Fund. emergency connectivity and elsewhere during the pandemic.
Lovell and All4Ed helped organize the letter sent to Cantwell.
“We have to do absolutely everything we can to get the students to catch up. Giving access this year and withdrawing it next year makes no sense. We need Congress to deliver, ”Lovell said.
Cantwell was among a group of lawmakers who initially advocated for funding in 2021, describing broadband as “necessary for every American household,” in a May press release.
In Washington, approximately 54,000 students received home Internet access through the fund during the 2021-2022 school year, according to All4Ed.
“(Emergency Connectivity Fund) bridges an equity gap that exists between urban and rural districts, but also between highly connected areas and places where the Internet is limited or even completely useless,” McDaniel said. “That’s what most of our northern county is; they don’t have access to it. And what they have is incredibly slow.
Although southwest Washington districts were not initially involved in efforts to get Cantwell’s attention, local school officials said it was a letter they would sign. if that happened to them.
“We were not involved in this effort; However, we will be supporting this expansion because it would support our area school districts, ”said Monique Dugaw, spokesperson for Education Service District 112, which oversees school districts in Clark County.
State Superintendent Chris Reykdal also pleaded for the federal pursuit of the plan, as well as longer-term solutions to the problem in his annual speech on Friday.
“We obviously want the federal government to relaunch all of its programs around this,” he said. “But at some point we need to have statewide conversations about what it means to be a learner.” Reykdal indicated how many teachers expect homework to be submitted digitally and that an increasing number of communications with parents are also being done digitally.
“We are creating dependency by sheer practice that forces us to view connectivity as a basic educational right,” Reykdal said.
The original House bill supporting the Emergency Connectivity Fund, which is part of the Build Back Better Act, was around $ 4 billion before it was reduced to just $ 300 million because he faced a more difficult task moving to the Senate.
The future of Build Back Better is questionable following opposition from West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin in late December, putting the fate of the Emergency Connectivity Fund on hold.
“These are just crumbs of the original proposal – which we will take because we are hungry,” Lovell said. “But we’re going to have to do better for the kids over the weeks.”