A WiFi symbol on a cellphone indicating available wireless internet connections

 The homework gap—a phrase coined in 2012 by Jessica Rosenworcel, now acting FCC chairwoman—is defined as the long-documented and persistent inequality of students who lack reliable home broadband access. Students without adequate access to reliable, high-speed broadband are at a significant disadvantage.

As we discuss equitable access to connectivity, it is important to define what constitutes “reliable home broadband.” The 2021 Consortium for School Network (CoSN) Home Student Connectivity Study recommends that adequate home broadband be redefined as 25 Mbps for download speeds per student, not per household. Additional bandwidth is needed for other members of the household using the internet.

Regardless of whether households choose to subscribe to broadband internet, schools and districts need to ensure that all students can engage in online learning and access digital educational resources.

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, about 16 million K-12 students across the U.S. were impacted by the homework gap. According to Common Sense Media, the combined efforts to close the digital divide made by municipalities, nonprofit organizations, community organizations, and vendor partners since the onset of the pandemic reduced that number to around 12 million students by 2021. While this trend is worth celebrating, the homework gap will remain a persistent challenge as educational experiences continue to move online.

Homework Gap Grant Program

Kajeet was founded by three fathers in 2003 to serve students and all those who love them, which remains our focus. Through our partnerships with over 2,500 schools and districts across North America, we are privileged to make a meaningful impact on the lives of students and educators. Connecting underserved students is at the heart of all we do.

As part of our commitment to bridging the digital divide, we launched the Homework Gap Grant program in 2017. Over the years, we have formed partnerships with 120 schools, districts, public libraries, community centers, and municipalities to help them serve their communities with safe and reliable Wi-Fi access. Through this grant program, we have provided recipients the opportunity to close the homework gap for students in their communities with a pilot program of their choosing, including using Wi-Fi hot spots, school bus Wi-Fi, LTE-embedded laptops, and Chromebooks.

This year, we adjusted the grant to fit better the needs of district and community digital equity initiatives. During the height of the pandemic and the subsequent spike in distance learning, many districts prioritized the purchase of Wi-Fi hot spots or formed partnerships with broadband providers to offer discounted plans to families without internet access at home.

Therefore, instead of offering a small pilot program to help districts and community entities start their digital equity program, we founded the 2022 Homework Gap Grant. It will provide $20,000 awards for 20 recipients to expand upon the solutions they have already implemented to create a connected community for students.

Here is an example of how one Virginia district applicant plans to leverage several student Wi-Fi solutions to make an impact within the community:

“We would use the school bus Wi-Fi solution to allow students time on the bus to complete homework and to allow students traveling on athletic teams to attend their classes remotely since all our classes 6-12 have video conferencing systems installed. We would provide the over 12 community centers throughout our city with routers to provide homework hotspots to allow students to have a location in their area that they can go to for internet and tutoring. Lastly, we would use mobile Wi-Fi hotspots to address the needs of our homeless students or students that live in a household that is unable to establish a fixed high-speed internet connection.”

Kajeet worked with the Virginia School Boards Association (VSBA) to offer a grant dedicated to Virginia school divisions. Nine school divisions, one per VSBA region, were awarded up to $25,000 to expand their digital equity initiatives for students.

As with previous years, Kajeet also will support all applicants not selected as awardees. Each applicant will receive a consultation to discuss other funding options available to ensure that they can provide sustainable connectivity for their students.

For the 2022 program, Kajeet received 65 applications from educational organizations across the U.S. Most were from K-12 school districts, though public libraries, community centers, institutions of higher education, and early childhood learning centers also were represented.

The highest numbers of applications were received from the states of California, Virginia, New York, Georgia, and Missouri, respectively. Given the wide range of urban and rural populations in these states and the breadth of the digital divide faced by students in these regions, this aligns with insights from Pew Research Center’s “Homework Gap” report. This study found that 39 percent of rural residents and 33 percent of urban residents have had some difficulty accessing the internet, compared with only 23 percent of suburban residents.

In the 2022 Virginia Education Broadband Grant, Kajeet received 30 applications from school divisions across the state.

As our selection committee reviewed applications for both the 2022 Homework Gap Grant and 2022 Virginia Education Broadband Grant, several trends emerged that together serve to illustrate the current landscape of the nation’s digital divide.

Leaders require help identifying need. There is wide variance in how schools answered the questions “Who is connected?” and “How do you know?” Providing guidance to schools and communities to develop policies and procedures to capture connectivity accurately is the first step toward digital inclusion. 

It also may be helpful to create more standardized collection tools for districts, counties, and states to better identify the number of students without reliable internet access at home, as well as to track the progress being made in closing the gap.

Rural communities are disproportionately affected. Many applicants cited the lack of affordable broadband options, poor coverage, and income disparities in rural areas as the main challenges faced when connecting students. One in three applicants for the Virginia Education Broadband grant were from rural areas.

It is no surprise that rural communities across the country are disproportionately impacted by the digital divide. This is supported by various national reports, including a 2021 report from Common Sense Media, which found that 40 percent to 50 percent of students in rural states, including Alabama and Mississippi, lack reliable Internet access at home.

According to one applicant: “Rural high-poverty districts such as ours often face a greater logistical challenge due to homes being widespread over a large geographical area. Whereas an urban district can strategically place a few routers, this is not feasible in our rural district, where some children live 50 miles from their school. The rugged terrain also poses a challenge for connectivity.”

Funding is a challenge. Additional federal funding, including the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund (ESSER) and the Emergency Connectivity Fund (ECF), has provided districts and public libraries with the opportunity to better address the homework gap in their communities during the pandemic.

However, based on the need established by applicants, funding is still a challenge when it comes to connecting students outside the classroom. Furthermore, these federal funding sources are not permanent, creating a funding cliff down the road. District and community leaders would like additional help to identify sources to fund this work, such as creative usages of Title I.

Mobile connectivity is needed. Applicants expressed the need for more mobile connectivity options for students rather than just focusing on fixed broadband solutions. While districts and communities should continue working to provide every home with connectivity, the reality is that students are mobile.

Many students may stay with different family members after school, work an after-school job, or participate in extracurricular activities. It is also important not to forget key student populations who require mobile connectivity, including hospital-bound students, migrant students, students in foster care, and students experiencing homelessness.

According to an applicant: “Our greatest challenge has been that once we identify a student’s need for home internet access, we have found that the student often lives in more than one location. They may also stay with other family members during a given time, so we are trying to solve home internet needs in multiple locations for our same students.”

School bus Wi-Fi is on the rise. Almost one-third of applicants from both the 2022 Homework Gap Grant and 2022 Virginia Education Broadband Grant were interested in incorporating school bus Wi-Fi into their student connectivity plan. Connecting school buses with secure, reliable Wi-Fi connectivity—which enables 65 students to connect to safe, filtered internet at one time—can be a gamechanger.

Students spend an average of 46 minutes roundtrip on the bus traveling to and from school each day. This time could be spent completing online assignments, studying for a test, or accessing additional resources.

Questions to ask

School board members play an important role in advancing digital equity for students in their district. Your voice makes a difference in the lives of under-connected students and families as you advocate for their equal access to the wealth of opportunities and resources available online.

As you consider your school board’s digital equity strategy, these questions may help you identify the need in your district and focus your efforts:

  • How many of your students lack home internet access?
  • How and when does the school identify students or staff who need digital access?
  • Does your board have a policy to support digital inclusion for every student?
  • Does the policy ensure home access for students and staff?

Has the district applied for new federal funding opportunities, such as the ECF, to close the homework gap and support digital inclusion?

Future of Student Connectivity

While it is deeply encouraging to see the results of our shared work to close the homework gap, much work remains to be done. More than ever before, learning must be accessible to students at any time, from anywhere: at soccer practice, in a doctor’s office waiting room, and certainly from home. Likewise, with the astronomical increase in the use of videoconferencing tools, streaming platforms, video content, and advanced tech tools in our classrooms, it’s clear that the bandwidth demands of digital learning will only continue to grow.

In a broader sense—even beyond the critical metrics of classroom engagement and graduation rates—it is vital to consider the ways in which we are setting students up for lifelong success. Our world is becoming increasingly digital, with STEM tools and software, digital certifications, secondary education applications, and job opportunities hosted online. Access inequity has long-term impacts on students’ ability to succeed.

The shared goal of eliminating the homework gap once and for all can seem like a daunting task. But as we work together, leveraging the best of both public and private wireless networks, we can reach a future in which every student is connected to reliable broadband access.

To learn more about Kajeet’s Homework Gap Grant program, please visit www.kajeet.net/digitalinclusion.

Michael Flood is the general manager and senior vice president of education markets at Kajeet.

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