Addressing the Homework Gap through Public-Private Partnerships

According to a 2018 report from the Pew Research Center, approximately 15% of households with school-aged children do not have Internet access, and nearly 20% report not being able to do their school work because of it. While great strides have been made to address the Digital Divide in school, students across the country, particularly in rural and underserved communities, still suffer from a persistent Homework Gap - a challenge that the current COVID-19 crisis has only exacerbated. 
 
The 1996 National Education Technology Plan first acknowledged the existence of a Digital Divide in schools. That same year, E-Rate came into existence to help schools and libraries connect to the Internet as part of the Universal Service Fund under the Telecommunications Act. Over the years, the program has proven to be highly successful. By 2018, approximately 98% of the K-12 schools and districts in the country had met the Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC’s) connectivity goals. The problem, though, is that E-Rate only covers school connections and not home Internet access. With the current shift to online and remote instruction, millions of students remain unconnected.
 
Although CoSN and our national partners have asked Congress to allow the E-Rate to address the Homework Gap, two member districts sought out an immediate remedy to get ALL of their students online. They went directly to their community and established public-private partnerships.
 
Boulder Valley School District (CO) - ConnectME
In 2015, Andrew Moore - Chief Technology Officer in Boulder Valley School District - first attempted to end the Homework Gap for his most vulnerable students. In collaboration with the district and the nearby public housing authority, he provided free WiFi from the school to the local residents. However, because of current policy restrictions that do not allow E-Rate funding to be used to provide home access, the cost effective, tax-neutral, E-Rate link was shut off. Determined to ensure that every student had equal access to the Internet, the district then created a public-private partnership with Live Wire Networks and launched ConnectME (My Education) this spring.
 
Through this partnership, LiveWire installed their FCC-approved equipment on three school buildings to expand their coverage while allowing free access to those in need. By signing onto this agreement, it is a win-win for both entities. Qualifying students get free access to over-the-air broadband, and the expanded network serves as a revenue generator by providing an alternative service to communities across the county. The program is now expanding districtwide.
 
Building a Neighbor-to-Neighbor Network in New York
When schools closed last March in Madrid-Waddington (NY) Central School District - a small rural community in Northern New York along the St. Lawrence River - leaders recognized it was imperative to get all 700 students online. Working on a case-by-case basis, teachers, counselors, and administrators contacted each family that did not appear to respond during the first few days of remote learning. In each instance, the district discovered the same issue: no home Internet access.
 
Over the course of three weeks, district leaders devised solutions. They worked with satellite, cell, and local Internet Services Providers (ISPs). Due to the remoteness of some families, neither fiber nor cell service was an option. That was when ingenuity and a public-private partnership led to a solution: the Neighbor-to-Neighbor Network.
 
Using the existing network of a local ISP and grant funding from their regional cooperative education services, the district installed hardware on homes that had access to send a signal up to 5-miles at a 90º angle to those without Internet. Each “host home” can now provide 22MB service to otherwise unconnected families.
 
Community Solutions to a Systemic Problem
During this crisis, Internet access has become essential. Both Boulder Valley School District and Madrid-Waddington recognize that while many barriers to learning may exist for some students, access should not be one of them. The current pandemic has not only revealed the persistence of the Digital Divide and the travesty of the Homework Gap but also forced leaders, educators, and policymakers to recognize it at a national level. While a federal solution may be a ways off, these two districts illustrate the power of public-private partnerships to improve Internet access for ALL students.