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Spanberger: Central Virginia Students Lacking High-Speed Internet Access Must Receive Additional Support Amid Coronavirus Closures

In a Letter Sent to House Appropriations Committee Leaders, the Congresswoman Called for the Department of Education to Ensure Students have Equitable Access to Learning Opportunities During School Closures Regardless of Home Internet Connectivity

Washington, March 17, 2020

WASHINGTON, D.C. – U.S. Representative Abigail Spanberger is leading an effort calling for strengthened guidance to students, parents, and educators in rural areas as schools close in response to the coronavirus—and as Central Virginia students with a lack of reliable high-speed internet access face additional challenges in accessing and completing online assignments.

Current guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that if schools are dismissed, educators should consider implementing e-learning programs to fill gaps in education time. However, Central Virginia educators and parents have expressed concerns for students who live in households without reliable access to high-speed internet.

In a letter sent to leaders of the House Appropriations Committee, Spanberger led 30 of her colleagues in pressing the U.S. Department of Education to develop a plan to help local schools better mitigate the effects of unreliable internet connectivity on students and parents. Additionally, the letter requests that House Appropriators include language in fiscal year 2021 appropriations legislation requiring a report on how students with unreliable internet are impacted during extended closings caused by public health crises, like the coronavirus pandemic.

“Student success should not be determined by zip code, and at a time when schools need to be focusing on keeping their children safe, families shouldn’t be forced to worry about how their children will be able to keep up with their peers because of a lack of access to broadband,” said Spanberger and her colleagues. “The language we request here will help put parents, students, and their schools at ease by ensuring that the Department of Education has a plan to help impacted schools better mitigate the effects of broadband connectivity issues as they pursue courses of action to keep their students safe.

“The coronavirus pandemic has forced schools across Central Virginia to take necessary precautions to protect our students, teachers, and staff. And as our hardworking teachers are working to develop new lesson plans, many of our students face connectivity challenges at home that can make it difficult to keep up with these online assignments—at no fault of their own,” said Dr. Eric L. Jones, Superintendent, Powhatan County Public Schools. “Additional guidance on best practices for dealing with a lack of reliable internet access would be greatly appreciated, and I’d like to thank Congresswoman Spanberger for bringing attention to this issue.”

“Virginia PTA members are extremely concerned about the infrastructure inequities across our school systems, and the coronavirus perfectly highlights the digital divide that already exists for many students and their families,” said Jenna Alexander, Vice President of Advocacy, Virginia PTA. “Virginia PTA would like to thank Congresswoman Spanberger for her leadership on this critical issue of opportunity and educational equity.”

Specifically, Spanberger’s language would require the Department of Education to coordinate with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, CDC, and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to produce a public study detailing the impacts of broadband connectivity gaps on the abilities of schools to implement alternative education plans.  Additionally, the legislation would require the U.S. Department of Education to develop a plan to lessen the impacts of these educational inequities in the future.

Spanberger co-led the letter with U.S. Representative Stacy Plaskett (D-USVI-AL).

Click here to read the full letter, and the full letter text is also below.

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Dear Chairwoman DeLauro and Ranking Member Cole,

As you consider Fiscal Year (FY) 2021 appropriations, we respectfully request you include report language that would help schools better prepare for impacts of the coronavirus (COVID-19), as well as any future public health crisis, as it relates to the use of e-learning programs for those schools forced to close.

Across the United States, lack of access to broadband connectivity continues to impact large numbers of families and students. As of 2019, 27% of rural residents do not have access to broadband. According to the 2016 FCC Broadband Progress Report, nearly 12 million children live in homes without a broadband connection. This limits K-12 students’ ability to complete assignments after school and creates the “homework divide.” As schools adjust their operations to best protect students from public health threats, they must consider this homework divide to ensure all students, regardless of broadband access, are able to equitably continue their education.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommended that if schools are dismissed, schools should consider implementing e-learning programs, including digital and distance learning options like online lessons – options that often require reliable access to broadband connectivity.  The CDC also urges schools to determine how to deal with students who potentially lack Internet connectivity at home. Currently, many students who lack access to broadband at home complete their out of school assignments at public places with connectivity, such as restaurants or local businesses.  However, CDC guidance also directs schools to discourage students from gathering in restaurants or shopping malls – presenting a further challenge to students who do not have broadband access in the home.

For these reasons, we respectfully request the Committee include the following language in the report accompanying the FY21 Labor, Health and Human Services, Education, and Related Agencies Appropriation Bill:

Public Health Crisis Response & Rural E-Connectivity — While the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention provides guidance to schools on continuing operations during a public health crisis, the equity concerns for students who live in households without access to broadband connectivity are unknown and may not be incorporated to schools’ continuity of operations plans. As such, the Office of the Secretary of Education, in coordination with the Department of Agriculture and Federal Communications Commission, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Department of Health and Human Services, is directed to produce a study to be released to the public and delivered to Congress within 90 days of enactment detailing the impacts of broadband connectivity gaps on the abilities of schools to implement alternative education plans for students completing e-learning assignments during extended closings due to public health crises. The Secretary of Education is directed to include a plan of action for addressing broadband connectivity inequities in the short term for the current public health crisis caused by Covid-19 as well as a plan for long-term strategies to lessen the impacts of these inequities for public health crises that may prompt school closures in the future.

Student success should not be determined by zip code, and at a time when schools need to be focusing on keeping their children safe, families shouldn’t be forced to worry about how their children will be able to keep up with their peers because of a lack of access to broadband. The language we request here will help put parents, students, and their schools at ease by ensuring that the Department of Education has a plan to help impacted schools better mitigate the effects of broadband connectivity issues as they pursue courses of action to keep their students safe.

We look forward to working with you on these important issues and thank you for your consideration of this important request.

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