Congress and the FCC should act swiftly to ensure that all our school-aged children are online and continue learning during the coronavirus pandemic. Keeping students safe and connected during this challenging time is essential to our society’s well-being. Urgent and effective action is required, and the existing E-rate funding program is the most viable solution to meet the need.
 
The Congress should immediately:
  1. Contribute stimulus support to the E-rate Category Two budget system.
  2. Designate off-campus connectivity for students as an educational purpose.
The FCC should immediately:
  1. Expand Category Two funding to include end-user devices and off-campus connectivity.
  2. Waive its 28-day bidding period in favor of local emergency bidding requirements.
  3. Allow FY2020 Category Two funding requests to be submitted until June 30, 2020.
These actions would provide timely, much-needed resources to meet the un-met connectivity needs of our local communities, while offering appropriate constraints and oversight of the use of funds.
 
Please contact your state’s congressional delegation and submit comments to the FCC today. Let them know that you want to keep students online during this crisis and that the E-rate program is the best method to serve and support our local communities.
 
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Closing schools during the coronavirus pandemic will slow the spread of infection and it is important that we take this step.  However, as a society, we cannot afford to ask millions of students to put their education on hold indefinitely. Nor should we risk their health, or the health of those with whom they come into contact, by requiring they sit shoulder-to-shoulder in a classroom or on a bus. Education should not stop while we are forced to close school buildings to protect our communities.
 
Fortunately, an alternative exists that serves both needs: online learning from home. Many schools in virus-impacted communities already are making the most of this opportunity by taking their daytime instruction online. They are connecting to students in their homes, using the Internet to supplant the class time that would otherwise be lost during this difficult season.
 
But there is another problem. Millions of K-12 students in America lack adequate Internet access at home. Those with computers are forced to seek out free Wi-Fi in parking lots or inside retail establishments. And those without computers and home Internet simply are left behind.  This is the digital divide separating our nation’s children. It is not good under any circumstance, let alone during a global pandemic in which we are requiring students to connect from home for their education.
 
A timely solution to this problem is needed, one that places minimal administrative burden on communities and individuals while maintaining strong oversight and funding safeguards. Of all the existing federal programs, E-rate funding is the best suited to deliver effective support quickly, efficiently, and responsibly. All that is needed is E-rate designated stimulus support from Congress and a few minor changes to regulations by the FCC.
 
Here is why the E-rate program makes such great sense:
  1. Available. The E-rate application process is already up and running. With a few tweaks, it could accommodate requests for connected devices and community hotspots serving students.
  2. Flexible. Communities differ in their needs. The E-rate program allows local leaders to determine their community’s requirements instead of dictating a one-size-fits-all solution.
  3. Accountable. Because the E-rate is a discount program that contains appropriate oversight and audit functions, applicants only purchase what they can afford and need.
  4. Compatible. Using similarly configured devices helps teachers plan their lessons while also supporting equitable access for students. Consistency and central administration are a must.
  5. Safe. Cyber security is required to keep networks up and running. Schools and libraries can provide CIPA filtering and strong network security features to keep students safe and online.
Now, more than ever, we need to keep our students online. No new bureaucracy, grant program or individual voucher system can rapidly fulfill this mandate as well as the E-rate program and its army of local schools and libraries. Whether it is on-campus or off-campus, the E-rate program is the most common-sense method to deliver Internet access to students, wherever they may be.