How US school’s IT departments can use federal funding to improve digital equity in learning

The CARES Act can be the key to to schools addressing their digital challenges, even after COVID-19 is a distant memory.

Understanding what the Second COVID Relief Bill Means for Education

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At long last, COVID vaccines are in wide distribution and restrictions are relaxing as we all sense the pandemic receding. The changes it brought to learning, however, are likely to remain part of the education landscape for many years to come, and indeed may become permanent in some ways. The sudden shift to online learning in 2020 brought renewed attention to two long-term concerns in modern education: the network infrastructure supporting schools, and the so-called “homework gap” that puts many children at a disadvantage due to lack of broadband resources at home, generally due to economic status.

While both of these factors have been problems for a long time, a year ago, they became full-blown crises as classrooms emptied and teachers struggled to effectively teach remotely. The passage of multiple COVID relief funding bills include billions of dollars earmarked to address these digital challenges—and the latest distribution through the CARES Act can be the key to long-term success for schools, even after COVID-19 is a distant memory.

Returning to the classroom doesn’t end the need to upgrade

As more schools return to in-person instruction, many if not most are doing so with a hybrid model that combines remote learning with connected in-classroom instruction. Rather than relieve the stresses on the network, hybrid learning actually increases it because it requires schools to maintain BOTH channels at the same time, rather than just running connected classrooms or a full remote curriculum alone.

Juggling this double-duty model forces schools to invest across their entire network infrastructure, from the Wi-Fi access points, switches and cabling needed to drive in-room digital learning, to their storage capabilities and backbone connectivity to hundreds or thousands of remote students. These are investments that won’t wait, and the CARES Act (as well as the subsequent Consolidated Appropriations Act and the American Rescue Plan Act) can help your district quickly obtain the funds needed to accelerate those infrastructure improvements.

Helping families connect from home

The other end of the connectivity challenge is equally daunting. The digital divide puts some students beyond the reach of remote learning due to their families’ economic circumstances. While cellular connectivity may be almost universal in the United States, remote learning is difficult on a smartphone’s tiny screen—and with more adults working from home, other connected technologies may already be spoken for by parents who need to work, or even other children under the same roof.

2020-school-bus-wi-fi-951x500Fortunately, these federal relief funds provide for this as well. Because it offers broad leeway in their administration, school districts can invest in the hardware remote students need—such as Chromebooks or tablets—and distribute them to qualifying students so their access to education isn’t sacrificed due to being economically disadvantaged.

Schools can also use the funds to provide dedicated Wi-Fi hotspots in public areas, or even on school buses parked in underserved neighborhoods, which amount to roughly 20% of K-12 students in the United States right now.

CARES vs. E-Rate, and CapEx vs. OpEx

These relief funding acts were passed to provide large amounts of emergency funding quickly. There is another funding source available, the Schools and Libraries Program of the Universal Service Fund, commonly known as E-Rate, which is a renewing funding program offered through the FCC. In fact, five-year budgets just reset in 2020, so budgets are available now.

While CARES money is obtained through a relatively streamlined grant process, its rules also vary by state, which can make it difficult for resource-stretched school districts to tap into its funding. It also requires that funding be invested immediately—in the same year it’s awarded. E-Rate, in contrast, is uniformly managed at a federal level, and its five-year cycle means that schools have up to five years to spend their awarded funds. The catch, in this case, is that E-Rate funds are not eligible for technology investments outside the school—such as for Chromebooks or remote Wi-Fi infrastructure. The CARES Act does fund these initiatives, often at 100% of the cost, unlike E-Rate funding, which varies from 20%-85% for eligible products and services.

This quick-turn spending requirement also raises the important question of budgeting over the long term. While the CARES Act provides immediate CapEx investment power, many of these network improvements will also have significant long-term OpEx figures attached, like data service plans for remote users on Mi-Fi hot spots, for instance. Many school districts are now looking to build their own networks and become service providers to their communities, leveraging their existing broadband to share with families in need.  Shifting the cost to CapEx this way allows CARES Act funding to finance the buildout and avoid incurring the OpEx of monthly data plans per student.

Getting through the process takes time, effort—and help

If that model sounds like a lot of paperwork, I’m afraid it is. With school district stretched to the breaking point, there may be just a single person tasked with navigating the processes of applying under the assorted federal funding programs, as well as E-Rate, either of which can be difficult to navigate. Then, that same person may be expected to coordinate the actual upgrades themselves when the funds become available—and there’s always a time limit involved, particularly with CARES Act funds.

CommScope is now providing assistance to schools across the nation in the application process, as well as in the design and deployment of the network upgrades their students depend on for quality education, however it's delivered. If your school or district is facing the twin stresses of overburdened network infrastructure and complicated request paperwork, there’s a good chance that we can help you win the funding you need—and after that, we can help you put it to the best possible use.

After all, that’s what it means to be in the solutions business. Contact CommScope’s RUCKUS Funding Support Program or visit our public funding resource page today to get started.