Schools may need an extra $5 billion for online learning

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Lawmakers have made additional funding available to ensure students have access to internet and online learning during the pandemic, but according an analysis by the education group Funds for Learning, schools are going to require more than $5 billion to ensure students can continue their educations at home for the foreseeable future.

U.S. health officials have predicted the coronavirus pandemic will extend into the fall, which means many schools are likely to continue delivering education online into the next school year. However, more than 7 million families in the U.S. cannot afford internet access, Funds for Learning estimates, leaving millions of students without the means to continue their educations.

Estimating the average cost of broadband service, connected devices and cybersecurity hardware and software for families with students, Funds for Learning published an analysis last week determining that the FCC’s E‐Rate program will need at least an additional $5.25 billion in funding to provide students with secure, connected learning devices.

“Connecting students and teachers is what the E-rate program is intended to do,” the report reads. “This financial aid would be focused on the goods and services necessary to keep students and teachers connected to the internet when they are at home.”

In response to students’ increased dependency on online learning, the Federal Communications Commission used its emergency authority to ease funding requirements and make it easier for schools and libraries to expand internet and device access. However, funding for the E-Rate program has already reached its 2019 cap of $4.15 billion.

The $2.2 trillion COVID-19 relief package passed in March included $31 billion in assistance for K-12 and higher education and Congress is currently considering the Emergency Educational Connections Act of 2020, introduced last week by Rep. Grace Meng, D-N.Y., which would provide an additional $2 billion in E-Rate funding.

But some members of the education community say these measures aren’t enough.

“While H.R. 6563 [the Emergency Educational Connections Act of 2020] is helpful in recognizing the need to connect home-based students to broadband, we believe more needs to be done,” the Schools, Health and Libraries Broadband Coalition wrote Monday in a letter to the U.S. House of Representatives. “If Congress chooses to limit the amount of funding to $2 billion total, as proposed in the Meng legislation, Congress would need to reduce the number of students served, reduce the number of months that broadband costs would be covered, reduce the number or types of devices funded and reduce the funding for network security.”