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The COVID-19 pandemic has added a new challenge for school districts hoping to bridge the digital divide and homework gap—both are terms used by educators to describe the inability to do schoolwork at home due to lack of internet access.

With many school campuses closed, the homework gap has grown into an all-encompassing rift for students. Students in low-income households are disproportionately affected.

Roughly 9 million students lack connectivity at home. According to Pew Research conducted before the pandemic, that’s around 15 percent of U.S. households with school-age children. A household earning less than $30,000 a year is almost six times as likely to lack connectivity compared to a household earning $70,000.  

Addressing the connectivity disparity in homes

Sensing a need for home access for students at the onset of stay-at-home orders, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) performed a needs assessment and released guidance ahead of the Fall 2020 school year. Key findings and recommendations published by the GAO include:

  • Students are facing device limitations – Students in mobile wireless-only households may have to rely on devices like smartphones that may not be well suited for academic tasks. Other devices such as desktops or laptops are better suited for homework; however, among all school-age children, those in lower income households are less likely than those in higher-income households to use these devices.
  • Students are facing data limitations – Wireless plans’ data caps—a limitation on the amount of data the subscriber can download and upload per month—could make it difficult for school-age children to do homework.
  • Prevalence of school issued Chromebooks – Over the past five to six years, Chromebooks for students have become the most popular learning device for U.S. schools. They combine affordability, usability, and accessibility to Google Classroom and a wide array of learning tools create by educators. However, without an internet connection, Chromebooks lose much of their utility.
  • Wireless hotspot devices provide a solution – Schools have found success loaning out mobile wireless hot-spot devices to students throughout the district who do not have access at home, providing them filtered internet access in their homes or elsewhere in the community. Schools have made available wi-fi hotspots on loan from school libraries to any student who claims a need for one regardless of household income. Students use district-issued Chromebooks which are then connected to the district’s internet resources using the hotspot device and over the mobile-wireless provider’s 3G or 4G LTE or 5G network.

Mobile hot spots are a solution that fits

School districts can lease hotspots from their mobile data provider, or procure their own mobile hotspot hardware to operate on a BYOD basis. In March and April, many wireless providers ran out of supply for schools according to Digital Bridge, a consultancy group for K12 schools. Always confirm compatibility with the provider before purchasing a BYOD mobile hotspot solution.

Often the first step for schools is to collect and analyze data about student needs by asking a question or two in the school registration processes and entering responses into their systems. Another way to gauge need is to view which students have engaged with distance learning applications and those who have not, and then reaching out to the households of students who are missing classes and online work.

Districts can deploy them without any significant delay. Once procured and configured by school IT administrators, mobile hotspots are easily distributed though the mail by pickup. They connect automatically to the WAN when powered on without any installation required by the end user.

Hotspots provide enough bandwidth for three to ten devices to access the Internet. This is useful for families with several students in the home. Many hotspots are equipped to provide speeds up to 30 Mbps, comparable to budget-level wireline solutions. Network speeds are fast enough for streaming classroom video materials and live video chatting.

Using FCC E-Rate Funding for Wireless Hotspots

Over the last 20 years, school districts were tasked to put broadband wireless access inside classrooms across the nation. The Federal E-Rate program was designed to provide school districts financial support for the job, funding purchases of networking equipment for LAN / WLAN installations, and for purchasing WAN access from a cable company or satellite provider.

When COVID-19 hit and millions of U.S. students were suddenly thrust into full time remote learning situation, educators urged the FCC to expand E-Rate funding to home access technology. The agency provided a temporary waiver that allowed schools to purchase wireless hotspots and services to provide students access to online learning materials from their homes.  

The waiver, which extends until September 30, 2020, allows schools and libraries participating in the E-rate program to accept free upgrades, improved capacity, Wi-Fi hotspots, networking gear, and other equipment and services to support teachers, students, and librarians during the COVID outbreak response. The waiver allows schools and libraries to partner with service providers to provide mobile hotspots and other wireless devices, to “ensure that students with limited or no internet connection are connected at home and prevent them from falling behind their peers, furthering the effects of the digital divide.”

Need help with E-Rate ordering? Talk to Us!

Advocacy groups like National Education Association call the E-Rate program the quickest, most efficient way to bridge the homework gap during this school year—the best way to ensure the students who need internet access get it and to distribute emergency funds equitably.

If you are purchasing technology for a school or library, NeweggBusiness helps schools utilize E-Rate funding to receive discounts on networking equipment. We have staff specializing in procuring classroom technology for eliminating the homework gap with improved home access to educational resources.  Learn more online at neweggbusiness.com/classroom-technology or reach our team directly at EDU@neweggbusiness.com.

Adam Lovinus

Author Adam Lovinus

A tech writer and Raspberry Pi enthusiast from Orange County, California.

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