Schools and libraries have only two more weeks to apply for $7.17 billion to support remote learning efforts through the Emergency Connectivity Fund program. The funding was included in the American Rescue Plan in an effort to solve the homework gap — a mission made more urgent due to pandemic school closures.
Vancouver Public Schools in Washington state, for example, is submitting an application that would help toward the purchase of 12,400 laptops — one for every student in grades 6-12, said Trevor Dodson, the district’s director of technology services. The district is hoping the new laptops improve academic performance.
Although the Federal Communications Commission, which established rules and procedures for the Emergency Connectivity Fund, has done outreach to encourage application submissions, it is unknown whether the entire $7.17 billion will be requested during this application window, which ends Aug. 13, or if more federal relief will be forthcoming.
When schools began to close for in-person learning in the spring of 2020, districts’ immediate focus was on getting devices and internet access to students and staff so they could learn and teach remotely.
Now, more than a year later and after an entire pandemic-plagued school year of experience, district leaders have been able to better organize their longer-term goals for not only improving remote learning access, but making that access effective and equitable.
These plans are being made with the intent that even when the pandemic is over and traditional full-time, in-person schooling resumes, all students should have school-issued devices and internet access so they can complete homework and assignments from home.
All of Vancouver Public Schools’ 22,000 students already have school-issued devices they can bring back and forth from home to school. The district also worked with partners and vendors to ensure all students had at-home access to the internet. But district data has shown underwhelming student academic progress, so the district wants to purchase more powerful and versatile laptops for grade 6-12 students, Dodson said.
The cost of each device and future service needs is expected to be about $700, with $400 of that potentially covered by money from the ECF program. “What we're trying to do is put a device in the hands of the students that's going to prepare them for jobs in the future,” Dodson said.
If the district is awarded ECF money, it estimates being able to order the laptops next year in order to provide them to middle and high school students in the fall of 2022, with the remaining $300 cost for each device being paid for through the district’s budget. The Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund also allows flexibility to meet a district’s technology needs.
Helping Vancouver Public Schools through the ECF application process is Funds for Learning, a company that supports schools and libraries in nearly 10,000 locations across the country in navigating the federal funding process. CEO John Harrington said most of the schools and libraries the company works with are planning to apply for the ECF program, with many interested in not just getting any type of device for every student but getting a device that meets the right specifications for doing off-campus work effectively.
“It's really struck a nerve, a chord, with them,” Harrington said. “Clearly, the need is profound enough to get students connected and keep them connected.”
Harrington said a vast majority of those interested districts have yet to file their applications, but he expects most applications to be submitted closer to the Aug. 13 deadline. The filing window for applications opened June 29. An FCC spokesperson said in an email that although data on the number of applications to the ECF program is not yet available, the agency is currently accepting and reviewing applications.
Indeed, Harrington said for some of the districts his company represents and whose ECF applications have been submitted, the review process appears underway based on follow-up questions about the applications. In general, the ECF application process has gone very smoothly, he said, given that the federal program didn’t even exist six months ago.
The ECF program will be administered by the Universal Service Administrative Company, which also oversees the federal E-rate program that subsidizes broadband connections for schools and libraries.
If money is still left over after the first application window, the FCC may open a second one to reimburse schools and libraries for previously purchased equipment and services. The FCC may also consider opening a second prospective funding window, although that timing has not yet been determined, an FCC spokesperson said.
FCC will hold an ECF information webinar Aug. 3.