From the moment schools shut down at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, it became clear that many districts were ill-equipped to support their students from afar. They just weren’t ready for distance learning, and a big part of that was that too many students lacked adequate WiFi access to get to virtual class.
Cases like 2020’s Cayla J. v. California Department of Education, which charges that schools in the state are violating the constitutional rights of children of color by not providing adequate distance education, called out state Departments of Education for failing to provide better WiFi options than visiting a local Taco Bell.
It’s time for states to step up and realize that proper technology and WiFi connectivity are a must-have in public school districts, and that state policy is dangerously lagging behind. And while systems might not continue to operate as 100 percent virtual schools in a post-COVID world, better access to learning technology is no longer negotiable in this increasingly-digital world.
Ideally, hybrid schooling models can offer significant opportunities for personalizing learning, from special education students to students in rural areas who don’t have adequate wireless connectivity at home. To better understand the issues and tactics for improvement, let’s review current state laws for provisioning technology and WiFi access, exame how they are falling short, and propose policy changes to better support K-12 distance learning.
Overview of Tech and WiFi Provisioning Laws
From state to state, laws vary in how they currently address (or don’t address) distance and hybrid learning resource needs—and no two sets of laws are alike.
First, there are states that lack any laws about what connectivity should be provided for education. One example is New Jersey, where schools and districts were required to submit to the state “a survey weekly of how many students lacked devices and/or WiFi,” according to Erica Hartman, Director of Technology Integration at New Jersey’s Morris School District. Still, no new regulations have yet emerged from that data gathering.
Then, there are states that lacked laws prior to 2020, but began responding to the at-home learning requirement with new legislation for future needs. In Arizona, the House Education Committee introduced HB2421, a bill allowing for schools to create distance learning courses. According to the proposal, a school may apply for a “reimbursement fee” to cover the cost of the course, to be collected from the school district or charter where students are enrolled.
Finally, there are states that had some version of a law prior to 2020 and proceeded to add provisions to better address the needs of distance learning. For instance, prior to COVID-19, Section 12100.8 of California’s Public Contract Code only addressed online learning in the context of surplus technology and nonprofit computer labs. But policymakers took to the state legislature on February 19 with Assembly Bill No. 1560, and proposed adding sections designed “to close the digital divide in California.” These new amendments require the State Superintendent to survey education institutions to understand students’ access to computing devices and broadband connections. After that, the Superintendent and education institutions will provide devices or WiFi resources accordingly to students in need.
Federally, mandates do exist for schools and districts. The FCC’s E-Rate program, a K-12 broadband subsidy, provides methods for districts and libraries to acquire discounts on WiFi connectivity. However, those resources are limited for students once they leave school grounds, and are by no means comprehensive or equitably utilized. During COVID-19, the FCC and the Department of Education partnered to disseminate $16 billion in state-by-state funding from the CARES Act’s Education Stabilization Fund for remote learning. Internet service providers (ISPs) have been working with schools seeking to use CARES Act funding for remote learning. The question is whether or not the FCC and the federal Department of Education will continue to support WiFi provisioning once students return to physical classrooms.
Even when there are laws meant to address the digital divide in terms of devices and WiFi, they aren’t always effective.
Language in laws can be vague, says Arizona high school technology teacher Leon Tynes. For example, in California’s 2021 Education and Public Contract Code, one component reads “the Superintendent shall develop a standard to determine which pupils are eligible to receive a computing device under this section.” This terminology and phrasing, namely “standard” and “eligible,” is generic enough that all power is given to the Superintendent to decide more granular details around the standard of issuing computer devices, such as how devices will be distributed and by who. Without clear and concise language, the law became less of a requirement and more of a guideline.
Perhaps most insidious, though, is the issue of equitable resource distribution. Current state and federal policy fails to hold districts accountable for ensuring that all students receive the resources they need, and has allowed for alarming funding gaps to grow between the country’s wealthiest and poorest school districts.
Why Policy Change is Needed—and What Can Be Done
Does any of this really matter, since the pandemic is waning and schools are going back in person?
A chorus of education leaders say yes. Clear lessons from the pandemic are that technology improves learning and teaching, and K-12 schools are under-preparing students for the digital world.
Over in Morris County, New Jersey, Hartman expresses concern for students; she’s aware that “devices make for a better learning experience,” but feels frustrated that state-level Departments of Education do not provide devices with built-in WiFi. And back in Arizona, Leon Tynes echoes her sentiment: “Every campus is not as prepared to provide the level of distance learning with the necessary elements as other districts are.”
And students of color and/or from low socioeconomic backgrounds are the ones that suffer the most. Tynes, who teaches computer science, argues that “almost everything we use or touch in the United States has a microchip or a CPU integrated in its design,” meaning that students who don’t learn about creating technology—as opposed to merely consuming it—will be left behind.
Jennifer E. Dolan’s 2016 research “Splicing the Divide” tackled this equity piece with data way before COVID-19 reached U.S. shores, demonstrating that affluent students with more-frequent access to working technology become “active producers of technology,” where they create spreadsheets, design digital stories, and publish online writing; comparatively, their less-affluent peers become “passive consumers” who engage in drill-and-kill exercises focused on standardized testing requirements. That means they become less acquainted with workplace technical skills.
So, what can legislators do to address these concerns we’ve discussed?
For that, let’s turn to actual practitioners and researchers for answers. First, policymakers should agree upon and identify access to 1:1 devices and broadband internet as a fundamental right for all students—as necessary as food and security. According to a recent report from UCLA’s Institute for Democracy, Education and Access (IDEA), in which researchers conducted a survey of America’s public high school principals at the height of COVID-19, universal access to broadband has become an “essential precondition for learning.” Yet, more equitable access to devices and WiFi amongst student populations requires a substantial increase in public funding, which is more likely to happen once technology access is acknowledged as a right—not a privilege.
Second, in order to better understand current needs and limitations, policymakers should create stronger connections with individuals on the ground, from parents to teachers to administrators like Ellen Dorr. Dorr is the CTO of Renton School District in Washington state; given her proximity to Renton’s families, she has observed issues with the state’s proposed grants and privatized ISP offerings “The WiFi offers to families were from private companies,” she says, “but there were so many stipulations with what made them eligible.” Thus, there are huge opportunities for policymakers to conduct focus groups and research studies with communities to create flexible policies that “eliminate the barriers created through these programs,” beyond what the FCC and E-Rate currently provide.
Lastly, state agencies should work together—both within states, and across borders—to draft and pass new policies quickly and efficiently. In August 2020, California Governor Gavin Newsom issued an executive order requiring state agencies to work together to bridge the digital divide, but without explicit instruction to create new laws. What if these efforts were channeled towards actual legislation production? Furthermore, cross-state collaboration could enable policy-poor states like New Jersey to learn from both the ups and downs of more recent COVID-inspired legislation like California’s Assembly Bill No. 1560.
COVID-19 had deeply negative impacts on the K-12 space, enlarging learning gaps and pushing teachers and students to the brink of exhaustion and frustration.
However, COVID-19 also presents an opportunity because it shed light on the huge gap in policy relating to tech and infrastructure provisioning—what many are now referring to as a civil rights issue.
Renton County’s Ellen Dorr describes it best when she says, “The need isn’t new; the pandemic highlighted the enormity of the need and the challenges.” COVID-19 may have been hard, but perhaps it can lead to better policy to ensure equity of access to technologies that will remain crucial for all K-12 students.