Ruiz Calls on FCC to Close Digital Divide, Help Expand Remote Learning During COVID-19 Pandemic

WASHINGTON — Congressman Raul Ruiz, M.D., on Tuesday called on the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to close the digital divide by expanding the E-Rate Program to bring broadband internet access to students and families who are taking online classes while their school districts are closed to in-person learning due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

Yvette Clarke, D-NY, and six other members of Congress joined Ruiz in his effort.

The E-Rate Program – also known as the Schools and Libraries Program – is the FCC’s program to help schools and libraries obtain internet access. The program provides discounts ranging from 20 percent to 90 percent of the costs of eligible services depending on a school’s qualifications.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, as of August 2020, roughly 93% of households with school-aged children reported some degree of remote learning. The Bureau highlighted that lower-income households were less likely to rely on internet-based learning than higher-income households.

Ruiz’s letter comes on the heels of a meeting between himself and superintendents of Palm Springs, Desert Sands, Coachella Valley, Beaumont, Palo Verde, and Banning Unified School Districts. In the meeting, they discussed the need for additional support for low-income families whose children are in school remotely. In the letter, Ruiz advocates for the FCC to assist school districts with the purchase of hardware and subsidized internet access costs for low-income students.

Raul Ruiz

Congressman Raul Ruiz, M.D.

“The digital divide during this pandemic has put our local students at a disadvantage and elucidates the need for educational equity and closing the digital gap,” Dr. Ruiz said in a prepared statement. “That is why, in collaboration with our district superintendents, I am calling on the FCC to modify the E-rate program to help our school districts purchase equipment and provide internet access so that all students can continue to learn and grow during these unprecedented times.”

“The distance learning required of pandemic-related school closures further exposes the ongoing digital divide. We must collaboratively build a bridge across the divide so all students can access equitable learning opportunities,” Superintendent Scott Bailey of Desert Sands Unified School District said in a prepared statement.

“E-Rate provides discounts for telecommunication and internet access for eligible schools.   However, the restrictive use of funds should (for two years due to the COVID-19 pandemic) include virtual professional learning opportunities relative to the use of advanced technologies for the nation’s certificated and classified public school staff as well as virtual tutoring for students in mathematics, science, and reading informational texts,” said Superintendent Natasha Baker, Banning Unified School District. “Doing so would not only increase focused opportunities for staff to meet professional learning targets but also assist students in achieving their academic goals using the technologies to which E-Rate provides access.”

“The lack of affordable residential broadband in Riverside County and other parts of the state and country has been revealed to all during the COVID-19 crisis and it reflects the lack of a larger U.S. broadband policy,” said Superintendent Sandra Lyon of Palm Springs Unified School District. “If we are to truly close the digital divide, it cannot be done without E-Rate, which helps schools connect their own infrastructure and create access for students. With E-Rate funds, Palm Springs Unified School District could bring home internet access to our students in need. We currently have deployed 5,600 HotSpots, allowing our students to access their virtual learning platforms in areas where residential broadband is often slow, expensive, and not universally available. All students and all communities deserve access to affordable high-speed broadband. We need E-Rate funding, we need flexibility with E-Rate funding, and it needs to be part of a national plan to ensure access for our students who need it most.”

“As this pandemic has made obvious and clear, there is a great difference in technological availability across our state and nation,” said Superintendent Maria Gandera of Coachella Valley Unified School District. “This technological divide is impacting our society in many ways but most importantly it is preventing our children from equal access to a high quality and consistent education that is unfortunately having to be provided through a virtual distance learning model at this time. Being kicked out of your Zoom classroom multiple times in one hour due to a lack of reliable and consistent internet is unacceptable and unnecessary in the 21st Century. We have the technology to address this digital divide now. Why are we not fully mobilizing our resources to resolve it not only for today but for tomorrow as well?  In the end, it will not only benefit our students today but open countless opportunities for adults in the future as well.”

“The E-Rate regulations are extremely antiquated and only allow us to use E-Rate dollars on Category 2 expenditures, which includes direct internet connectivity from school building to student and teacher devices,” said Superintendent Maureen Latham of Beaumont Unified School District. “We would like consideration to be able to use E-Rate expenditures on home WiFi devices, mobile connectivity, and hardware solutions for students in order for us to better support them when they are not in the physical school building. Additionally, we would plead legislators to expand reimbursements to Smart City initiatives, VOIP phone projects, and outdoor wireless enterprises. We need flexibility in these times and the rigidity of the E-Rate regulations results in a lack of direct student and family support.”

Last month, Ruiz voted for H.R. 925, the updated Heroes Act, which explicitly authorizes the FCC to provided funding to school districts to assist low-income parents with internet access. This funding could be used for the purchase of equipment like laptops and Wi-Fi hotspots to ensure that no student is left behind due to the coronavirus pandemic.

The text of the letter can be viewed: HERE.


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