As schools around the country shuttered, efforts focused on how we could keep kids learning at home for weeks or even months. Getting every student online is critical. And right now, no Internet pretty much means no school. Districts and charter school networks doled out laptops and other mobile devices and scrambled to institute online learning.
In my hometown of Chicago, Mayor Lori Lightfoot (D) asked Comcast to open up broadband access to low-income families. The company quickly waived fees and increased the bandwidth of its low-income Internet program not just in Chicago but also across the country. The next day, the Federal Communications Commission announced that scores of major broadband providers were signing on to the Keep Americans Connected Pledge in an effort to support low-income families’ access to the Internet at a time when their health and safety depend on it.
These collective efforts stand as a proud point of American solidarity, a silver lining in our hyper-polarized political climate. Unfortunately, these efforts do not go far enough to ensure that our most vulnerable students have online access. The fine print in many Internet service providers’ offers excludes those who enrolled within certain time frames or had debt histories with the company or other issues. The result is that too many of the poorest families still fail to qualify for the free Internet programs supposedly designed for them.
Low-income students are half as likely to be proficient at reading as their higher-income peers, according to national assessments. These are the students who suffer the most from each day of lost learning. Not coincidentally, these are the students whose families are most likely to carry unpaid debts to local cable or Internet companies, making them ineligible for the generosity promised by the FCC’s pledge.
This problem was predicted. One of the FCC’s commissioners, Jessica Rosenworcel, sounded the alarm on the broadband “homework gap” in mid-March. The New York Times and The Post editorialized about the digital divide and the coronavirus. Education leaders across the country lobbied the FCC to wield its influence over telecommunications companies on behalf of low-income students.
Education activists in Oakland, Calif., worked together to raise this issue to Comcast. After a local petition garnered more than 2,000 signatures, the company added an asterisk to its requirements, temporarily waiving prior debts.
Comcast should be acknowledged for responding to voices from the community. But more than 700 telecommunications companies signed on to the FCC‘s pledge — including other giants such as AT&T, Charter and Cox. Many, if not all, have the same restrictive policies that effectively bar the schoolhouse doors for the most impoverished students. And those students cannot wait for petitions to be started in every community in every city in every state. The last weeks of the 2019-2020 school year are happening now.
This is where the FCC and the federal government should step in. A simple update to the Keep Americans Connected Pledge would cue the nation’s Internet providers to follow Comcast’s lead and waive prior debts. (While they’re at it, they should also waive restrictions excluding families who subscribed to service within the past 90 days.) More than 12,000 people have signed a petition demanding just this from FCC Chairman Ajit Pai.
Meanwhile, the FCC should distribute the billions of dollars earmarked under its own power for helping schools and libraries get online. With many schools and libraries closed for the rest of the school year, Rosenworcel made the common-sense suggestion that libraries and schools should be able to use those funds to buy WiFi hotspots for students and families and get them online.
More than a month into this crisis, we have seen no movement from the administration on these relatively simple changes. At this point, there is no question that the Trump administration has disastrously handled the onset and continued devastation of this pandemic and the concurrent economic collapse. But there is still a chance for Pai and this administration to show that when they say they want to keep Americans connected, they truly mean all Americans.