Public health officials are calling for fewer public gatherings, prompting many online events, as COVID-19 spreads in the U.S. and around the world, according tomedia The Verge. This is particularly acute in schools with a high risk of spreading disease. But as many American schools try to move to online curriculum plans, they are experiencing the limitations of broadband networks that prevent many students from connecting to their new online classrooms.
For school officials around the world, there is little time to prepare. Earlier this week, the United Nations reported that 22 countries on three continents had begun closing schools because of an outbreak of the new coronavirus. This means that nearly 300 million children worldwide are out of school, causing “unparalleled” disruption to education, the group said.
Washington state has confirmed 75 confirmed cases, about a quarter of the total number of cases in the United States. As a result, the state has seen many of the most extreme precautions. Schools in the state began closing this week to prevent the spread of the new coronavirus. Universities, high schools, middle schools and elementary schools have been closed, and some are dedicated to online classes through apps and software such as Zoom and Google Classroom until the school reopens.
Michelle Reid, president of the North Shore School District in Washington state, wrote in a letter to her family that before the March 5 shutdown, teachers worked with students “to ensure that they are familiar with the online platform spending time on them and that students are equipped with devices and Wi-Fi that can perform virtual learning.” “
If students in the area don’t have an internet connection available, Reed writes, the school will provide them with mobile hotspots so they can continue their studies.
Nenise Juneau, director of Seattle Public Schools, told NPR that the district requires teachers to “prepare learning packages” for use when they leave the classroom. She continued: “Learning online – doing so has some fairness issues because some students may not be able to use technology at home and on the Internet. The New York Times reported Friday that many other schools may not be as prepared as the North Shore School District, where some teachers across the country fill out shared Google docs with “tips and tricks” for online learning.
All of these examples highlight the problemthat that the Federal Communications Commission and lawmakers have been trying to address for years – the “homework gap.” The term refers to obstacles that students encounter when they do not have access to high-speed Internet at home. In an emergency, these online barriers become more apparent, especially when schools don’t plan for them in advance before moving courses online.
“As parents and civil servants, I believe we have a way to make sure that when this happens, every child can learn from a distance because they have the Internet in their home,” Jessica Rosenwald, a Democratic FCC commissioner, told the New York Times. “
For years, the FCC has been criticized for its incorrect broadband maps, which have made it harder for would-be rural Internet providers to know where access is most needed. So far, broadband providers have submitted their own data to the FCC to create their maps, and reports show that they have exaggerated their coverage. Congress this week approved a bill that would require providers to submit more details and require the FCC to create a new program to verify that the data provided is correct.
Other lawmakers, such as Senator Chris Van Hollen, have also proposed measures specifically to close the “homework gap.” His Homework Gap Trust Act will create a $2.4 billion trust fund that will use the proceeds from the FCC’s upcoming C-band mid-band spectrum auction later this year to address the issue.
Van Hollen told The Verge: “In times of emergency, the digital divide can have a more serious impact on our underserved families. Because coronaviruses can threaten our schools, it is even more important to ensure that students have access to the Internet at home. “