WASHINGTON, D.C. — The coronavirus pandemic that began in 2020 brought into focus the “digital divide,” in other words, the haves and the have-nots when it comes to consistent internet access.
And, as COVID-19 variants keep coming in waves over the United States — currently infecting and killing more people each day than it did before there were vaccines to stem its spread — the need to bridge that divide grows more acute.
The Federal Communications Commission announced Jan. 21 the release of an additional $7 billion in American Rescue Plan money to fund a fresh round of school broadband initiatives.
“We have seen several hundred Catholic schools participate” in previous rounds, said Jennifer Daniels, associate director of public policy for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Secretariat for Catholic Education.
On the most recent list of schools receiving FCC money for broadband, Daniels said she counted “several hundred” religious schools as having received grants; the FCC’s list, she added, does not specify whether a “St. John’s School” is Catholic or, say, Episcopal.
“Because of their goal to expand it, to have help with COVID impact, the big impact is that students can get devices to access to the internet — like a hotspot –and take it home with them,” Daniels told Catholic News Service in a Jan. 26 phone interview.
The interview took place while Daniels was waiting to pick up her daughter from school. “My own daughter’s school had to switch to online learning because they had a breakout in her class,” she said, underscoring that COVID-19 is still very much a factor two years after the pandemic started, and there are “a significant number of schools that are not able to do in-person learning.”
The USCCB is a member of the Homework Gap Coalition, a loose collection of organizations concerned about connecting students and educators online.
Two years ago, “everybody in the country, practically, was back at home trying to do their schooling,” said Jon Bernstein, who serves as co-chair of the coalition. He is president of the Bernstein Strategy Group, a government relations firm, which represents the American Federation of School Administrators.
“They realized there was a tremendous gap among kids — and educators, too — with a homework gap of 12 to 16 million people, depending on which survey and when it was taken,” Bernstein said.
Bernstein said coalition members are urging continued federal support for online educational needs. After this $7 billion is gone, there is likely space for one more tranche of grant funds to be made available, and that would be exhausted before the year is over.
“What happens when the money runs out? Will the families be able to pay to keep this going? Will there be other money coming?” Bernstein asked. “The next phase is, well, we’ve addressed this temporarily. What about the long term?”
As for how to get this done, “at this point, we’re still in the talking phase in terms of what can be done. Certainly there are options out there,” he said, citing the FCC’s emergency broadband program turning into the “affordable connectivity program.” However, he added, “Congress doesn’t move quickly on most things these days.” The problem may intensify if such money is appropriated as part of a larger budget package.
In terms of Catholic school connectivity, “all of the schools, just about 100%, have some capacity. How robust the system is depends on what they can afford,” said Sister Dale McDonald, a Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary sister who is vice president of public policy for the National Catholic Educational Association.
“Deployment is for classrooms,” added McDonald, a founding member of the Homework Gap Coalition. “We know how important it is for all of our classrooms to have the kind of technology that kids need today.”
Beyond the FCC grants, she said, some states and some internet service providers have some school programs. The NCEA, McDonald said, “encourages Catholic schools to “work with their families for some of the discounts and services that companies provide at home.”
For instance, “families could get technology offsite so they could get a laptop — tablets, that kind of thing — and hot spots so they could have broadband connectivity to do their (school)work at home,” McDonald added.
With remote learning one hallmark of the ongoing pandemic, she said, “it’s important that schools have the capacity on site so they can upload what is necessary … and kids have the capacity to download, either at the school or at home.”
There is no question that people need connectivity. But according to a survey of more than 10,000 respondents conducted for AT&T, as of October, 55% of consumers were not aware of the FCC’s emergency broadband benefit program.
Only 12% of respondents were aware of the program and had applied for EBB benefits, reported the tech news website Fierce. Thirteen percent of respondents who were aware of the program and qualified for it still had not yet applied for the benefit.
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Editor’s Note: For more information on the Federal Communications Commission’s affordable connectivity program, which succeeded the FCC’s emergency broadband benefit program Dec. 31, can be found online at https://www.fcc.gov/acp. The website lists criteria for households’ eligibility for the program.