Bringing kids online by making the internet affordable
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As schools and districts strive to move beyond pandemic-related disruptions, one thing has become abundantly clear: Technology will be an integral part of students’ lives, whether they are physically in the classroom or learning. home.
But the growing reliance on technology is a double-edged sword. On the positive side, many more children now have devices as nearly every school in the country has adopted a “one to one” curriculum during the pandemic, said Evan Marwell, CEO and founder of education nonprofit EducationSuperHighway, or ESH.
“The bad news is that because they did this, it’s now assumed that anyone can use the technology,” Marwell said. Teachers are now assigning tasks that require internet access in the hope that all children will be able to do it, he said, although some children still do not have high-speed internet at home.
On October 12, EducationSuperHighway released its second No Home Left Offline report, which highlights the barriers that continue to hinder internet access for millions of Americans and explains what states need to do to help connect broadband families.
A total of 51.6 million households are eligible for the Affordable Connectivity Program (ACP). But only about a quarter of those households are currently registered.
There has been some progress in improving internet access since the group published its first report on the subject last fall. Last November, the ESH reported that 28.2 million American households lacked internet access because they simply couldn’t afford it. The following day, Congress passed the bipartisan Infrastructure Act, officially known as the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act. The legislation created the Affordable Connectivity Program, which extends a pandemic-era initiative that offered low-income households a discount on broadband service and certain devices.
“This program has an incredible opportunity to actually make meaningful progress in bridging the digital divide,” Marwell said.
The problem, according to the new ESH report, is that of the 28.2 million households without high-speed internet a year ago, 18 million remain offline, not because they lack infrastructure, but because they cannot afford to access the Internet. At least half of those 18 million households are families with school-age children, Marwell said. And they are disproportionately low-income and black or Latino/Hispanic, according to the report.
Related: The accessibility gap is the biggest part of the digital divide
Marwell’s group is trying to spread awareness of the discount program and help more families sign up. A total of 51.6 million households are eligible for the Affordable Connectivity Program (ACP), including 17.7 million fully disconnected households. But only about a quarter of those eligible for the program – around 13 million households – are currently enrolled in the CPA, according to the report.
“There is a problem of awareness; in many communities, less than 25% of people actually know about the program,” Marwell said. “There is a trust issue that accompanies all government programs and programs that have historically been in this area.”
Another challenge is that the registration process takes a long time — 30 to 45 minutes on average — and is very confusing, Marwell said. Families, especially those who speak a language other than English, face multiple barriers. Most information about the program is only available online, including registration forms, and families who do not have the required documents may be rejected even if they are eligible for the benefit.
Education SuperHighway released a toolkit last month to help states, school districts and policymakers reduce some of these barriers and connect families to the Internet Discount Program. There is a step-by-step guide that contains templates, in multiple languages, for reaching families, training materials for advocates and best practices. The group also launched getacp.org, a website that helps families check their eligibility for the program and tells them exactly what they need to enroll.
As part of states’ efforts to increase CPA enrollment, a bipartisan group of 27 of 50 state governors signed the ESH pledge to make broadband a priority in their states.
Meanwhile, the FCC has also recognized the uphill battle it faces to help more people enroll in CPA and is taking action to help. In August, the federal agency set up a grant program to provide funding and other support to community organizations working to help families register.
Most states and school districts have understood the need to make broadband access a priority, Marwell said. Since the pandemic, “there’s been a real shift among school districts saying, ‘This affordable connectivity program is a sustainable program and we need to enroll our families in it,'” he said.
This story about improving internet access was produced by The Hechinger Report, an independent, nonprofit news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Register for Hechinger’s newsletter