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Thursday, February 29, 2024
Feb. 29, 2024

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School technology fund to end in June creating challenges for Washington districts

Districts across state urge expansion of Emergency Connectivity Fund

By , Columbian staff writer

Internet access and personal devices were once privileges in schools. Today, they’re essential drivers of education.

“When a family comes to us asking for help in getting internet access, it’s the same as asking for a book,” said Scott McDaniel, Battle Ground Public Schools’ director of technology services.

“It’s no different than asking for a pencil.”

One federal funding program, the Emergency Connectivity Fund has helped to provide tech resources to facilitate remote education for disadvantaged students and those in rural areas throughout the pandemic — but it has one problem.

By June of this year, the vast majority of its funds will be exhausted.

What is the Emergency Connectivity Fund?

The sudden pivot to remote learning in March 2020 left rural communities at a disadvantage — an issue that required school districts to seek help and funding from county, state and federal bodies to even the playing field.

Among the series of new funding programs launched to combat this issue is the Emergency Connectivity Fund, a $7.17 billion aid plan launched by the Federal Communications Commission as part of Congress’ American Rescue Plan of 2021.

Rather than distribute aid at the state level, which can be skewed to primarily benefit centralized, urban areas, the fund allowed for money to be allocated and claimed by individual school districts that knew how to best support their communities.

While similar programs — such as federal Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER)funding — are designed to sustain districts for multiple years, the benefits provided from the Emergency Connectivity Fund come on a one-time basis.

On June 30, the funding allocated to school districts and libraries across the country will expire. There will still be some money left, but not enough to maintain the internet connections established in a majority of rural areas.

“We’ve benefitted so significantly from federal stimulus funding in so many ways,” said Vancouver Public Schools CFO Brett Blechschmidt. “But it’s not like there won’t be needs that evolve over time. We’ve found from this pandemic that there’s never enough money.”

The approximately $5 million allocated to Vancouver Public Schools was primarily used to purchase just over 12,000 Chromebooks for students: a necessary refreshment that Blechschmidt said the district had been planning but will now be able to put off for a few more years.

For districts that serve more rural communities over a larger area, like Battle Ground Public Schools, the resources provided by the Emergency Connectivity Fund were even more crucial.

“There’s not money for us that’s specifically earmarked for technology. It has to compete with other things, which isn’t necessarily bad, but what you end up doing is making decisions that might not be ideal for learning,” said McDaniel.

“(The Emergency Connectivity Fund) is a game-changer. We can provide an educational program that’s competitive with the more urban districts.”

Unlike larger districts like Vancouver and Evergreen, Battle Ground isn’t supported by a technology levy that directly allocates taxpayer dollars to improvements in broadband or personal devices for students. Without the approximately $1 million from the Emergency Connectivity Fund, McDaniel said, Battle Ground wouldn’t have been able to provide the remote learning needed during the early stages of the pandemic.

When the current funding expires, the district will again be faced with the reality that the technology now demanded by modern education may be unable to sustain into next school year without additional federal funding.

“Technology isn’t a driver of educational improvement on its own, but it’s an accelerator of other good teaching practices. It takes it to the next level,” McDaniel said.

“If there’s no funding to support it — but there’s an expectation to provide that education — then it’s going to require other things to be cut. It’s absolutely critical. When it ends, it’s going to require some of those difficult conversations again.”

Though school districts anticipate they will return to full-time in-person learning going forward, the latest surge of the omicron variant is actively proving that the level of certainty we had hoped for in 2022 might not be here just yet.

And, as McDaniel said, there are no signs pointing to the end of the demand for the internet access and technology that modern education requires, either — pandemic or no pandemic.

Efforts to support the program

On Aug. 26, a coalition of school districts in the Puget Sound Educational Service District 124 penned a letter to Sen. Maria Cantwell — who serves as the chair on the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation — advocating for $40 billion in additional funding to continue the Emergency Connectivity Fund for an additional five years.

Among the signatures are superintendents from some of the largest districts in the state: Seattle Public Schools, Tacoma Public Schools and more.

“Public school is a public good, and states should be able to provide that. It’s crazy that low-income families should have to pay for technology, a key element of their education. This will just expand the achievement gap,” said Phillip Lovell, the associate executive director at All4Ed, a D.C.-based national nonprofit that’s helped guide school districts in acquiring money from the Emergency Connectivity Fund and elsewhere during the pandemic.

Lovell and All4Ed helped organize the letter sent to Cantwell.

“We need to be providing absolutely everything we can for students to catch up. To provide access this year and then take it away next year is insane. We need Congress to deliver,” Lovell said.

Cantwell was among a group of lawmakers who initially advocated for the funding in 2021, describing broadband as “necessary for every American home,” in a May press release.

In Washington, approximately 54,000 students received home internet access through the fund during the 2021-22 school year, according to All4Ed.

“(Emergency Connectivity Fund) bridges an equity gap that exists between urban and rural districts, but also between highly connected areas and places where internet is limited or even completely useless,” McDaniel said. “That’s what most of our north county is; they don’t have access. And what they do have is incredibly slow.”

Though districts in Southwest Washington were not initially involved in the efforts to get Cantwell’s attention, local school officials said it’s a letter they’d sign if it came to them.

“We weren’t involved in this effort; however, we would support this extension because it would support our area school districts,” said Monique Dugaw, a spokesperson for Education Service District 112, which oversees school districts across Clark County.

State superintendent Chris Reykdal, too, advocated for the federal continuation of the plan, as well as more long-term solutions to the issue in his annual address on Friday.

“We obviously want the feds to re-up all of their programs around this,” he said. “But at some point, we need to have statewide conversations about what it means to be a learner.” Reykdal referenced how many teachers expect assignments to be submitted digitally and that a growing number of communication with parents is done digitally, as well.

“We are creating a dependency by sheer practice that compels us to think about connectivity as a basic education right,” Reykdal said.

The original House bill supporting the Emergency Connectivity Fund, which is part of the proposed Build Back Better Act, was approximately $4 billion before being cut to just $300 million as it faced a more difficult task in passing in the Senate.

The future of Build Back Better’s is questionable after opposition from West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin in late December, putting Emergency Connectivity Fund’s fate up in the air.

“It’s just crumbs left over from the original proposal — which we’ll take, because we’re hungry,” Lovell said. “But we’re going to need to do better for kids as the weeks go on.”