Dear OET: Our students and families don’t have a reliable way to get online; how can we help?
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We have students and families that do not have access to reliable home Internet services. As we transition to implement remote learning, we are considering several immediate actions that we can take to get these students connected. We know that many Internet Service Providers (ISPs) offer low-cost Internet plans for eligible families and have heard that many ISPs have temporary offers during the current crisis. What should we know about these low-cost Internet plans and how can we help connect families to these offers?
-District Leader Tackling the Digital Divide (DLTtDD)
By now, most if not all public school districts have had to consider making a rapid transition to remote learning. Although there are many considerations to take into account throughout this process, helping to ensure that all students and families have reliable Internet access is likely at or near the top of most school leaders’ minds. Given that each community faces a diverse set of needs, we’ve outlined four strategies districts might implement to bridge gaps in connectivity. We also highlight a few limitations of low-cost Internet programs that are important to keep in mind.
1. Highlight Free or Low-Cost Internet Programs for Low-Income Families
Before the current crisis, several ISPs offered various low-cost Internet programs for low-income families. In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, many have updated their low-cost programs to help students, teachers, and families stay connected. Individuals from low-income backgrounds now qualify for additional limited time offers on Internet services and devices, such as two months of free service, increased speeds, and the removal of data caps. You can find an updated list of some free and low-cost Internet plans on the National Digital Inclusion Alliance (NDIA) website. Families and school personnel may want to contact local service providers for the most updated information on such offers. It is important to ensure that families and school personnel are aware of all of the terms of the offers, so that no one is caught by surprise after a limited time offer expires.
Provide Information About Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Lifeline Subsidy
The FCC’s Lifeline Program provides eligible low-income subscribers up to $9.25 monthly for their home Internet, home phone, or cell phone plan. Please note that households may receive a Lifeline discount on either a wireline or a wireless service but may not receive a discount on both services at the same time. FCC rules also limit Lifeline service to one subscription per household, but there are instances where multiple subscribers share the same residential address while still considered independent economic households (for example, multiple subscribers living in a shelter may share the same address).
Some low-cost Internet programs are designed for the Lifeline subsidy to cover most or all of the service fee. Customers looking to combine a Lifeline subsidy with another low-cost offer should check with their service provider for eligibility.
To ensure students and families are aware of these low-cost offerings, schools and districts can share information about local options through their websites and other school communication channels. For example, the Rhode Island Department of Education created a COVID-19 Internet Connectivity Guide for Families detailing what each local ISP and mobile carrier is doing to help people get Internet access. Similarly, Georgia’s Broadband Office created a COVID-19 resource page with a map of public WiFi locations and information on mobile internet offerings. Other State Educational Agencies may want to provide similar information.
2. Identify Locally-Available Low-Cost Internet Programs
Some families may have inadequate coverage in their communities, so it is important to investigate the availability of programs being recommended to families. Families can quickly determine their eligibility for low-cost Internet service options using the EveryoneOn search tool. The database can be accessed by entering a home zip code and selecting the circumstances that apply, such as qualifying for public assistance programs or having a student in the household. After checking all that apply, the tool will populate all applicable Internet and device offers for the family.
3. Cover the Monthly Cost of Low-Cost Internet Programs for Eligible Families
To help mitigate some of the limitations outlined above, school districts may choose to explore whether they can cover the monthly cost of low-cost Internet programs for eligible families. Families may want to contact their school districts to see if such coverage is being offered or might be considered.
San Francisco Unified School District (SFUSD) and Portland Public Schools (PPS) plan to cover the monthly cost of a locally-available low-cost Internet program for eligible families. The districts will distribute promotional codes to families that can be used to sign up for free service directly with the company. SFUSD budgeted $1 million from a general fund to cover the costs for one year, while the non-profit Fund for Portland Public Schools will pay for 4 months of service for 2,000 PPS households. More information on these two initiatives can be found here.
4. Set up a Hotline for the Community
Many districts have created support hotlines to help field students’ and families’ COVID-related questions and concerns. Hotlines are an excellent option for community members with little to no Internet access, and can even help families sign up for low-cost programs. Below are some examples of how hotlines have been utilized:
- Miami-Dade County Public Schools created multiple hotlines to help target different types of questions including those around remote learning, mental health services, and unstable housing.
- Los Angeles’ Community College District opted for a general COVID line with additional information about the County’s public health lines.
- The Public Service Commission of Wisconsin launched an Internet & Phone Hotline for citizens having trouble finding and signing up for low-cost Internet programs.
If thinking about establishing a hotline, consider disseminating the hotline phone numbers via calls or texts to families in addition to posting them on webpages to ensure they reach those without connectivity.
It’s important to note that many low-cost Internet programs have application requirements that may present challenges for some families. These may include:
- Photo identification or SSN
- Participation in government assistance programs
- Proof of income
- No outstanding debt with the service provider
- Age restrictions for students in household
- Application and offer expiration dates
In response to the current crisis, many low-cost Internet programs are temporarily waiving maximums (or caps) on the use of data which can limit the ability of students to fully engage in online learning — especially in homes with multiple children needing to access content online. Typically, once a family has used their allotted data, speeds may slow down unless additional overage fees are paid. Some ISPs are also temporarily waiving the requirement that households have no outstanding debt with the service provider, which can be a barrier for low-income families. Finally, many ISPs are also temporarily offering free service for a limited time (e.g., first 60 days free). Families should check these offers carefully so there are no surprises.
When recommending low-cost Internet programs as part of a remote learning strategy, it is important to understand what monthly payments will look like once the current free or lower-cost offers expire and make sure families are aware of these potential expenses.
School districts across the country are finding innovative ways to keep students learning, despite unequal access to high-speed and affordable Internet. As a trusted source of information and resources for students and families, school districts have the opportunity to create awareness around free and low-cost Internet options.
Home Internet access for all students is essential to avoid widening opportunity gaps. The strategies outlined above can serve as starting points to ensure families stay connected during the current crisis, but it is also important that schools and districts consider identifying longer-term, sustainable connectivity solutions.
We plan to highlight additional solutions (both immediate, and longer-term) in upcoming posts, so drop us a note at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The OET Team
Please note: The questions highlighted in the Dear OET series are real questions from real people that have been edited for brevity and to respect privacy.
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