A group of more than a dozen senators have asked the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to use funding to allow schools in the country to get discounts on devices that can help students get online during the coronavirus emergency.
With school districts suspending in-person classes across the country, Sen. Edward Markey (D-Mass.), Sen. Michael Bennet (D-Colo.), and Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) led a group of senators asking the FCC to allow schools to utilize the E-Rate program to get one-time discounts on WiFi hotspots for students who don't have internet access at home.
They also call for using the funds in the program to equip school devices with WiFi that can be lent out while classes are on hold within schools.
The E-Rate program is used to help schools and libraries get broadband access. In the letter, the senators say the coronavirus outbreak has "shown a bright light on the 'homework gap,'" or the millions of students in the U.S. who don't have access to the internet and need to complete schoolwork online.
The group of senators wrote a letter to FCC Chairman Ajit Pai on Monday.
"We believe that the FCC can use its emergency powers to temporarily waive relevant E-rate program rules and allow its beneficiaries to utilize universal service funding to provide home wireless service to existing school devices and hotspots for students who lack internet access at home," the senators wrote. "This swift, immediate action would help ensure that all students can remotely continue their education during the current public health emergency."
The letter continues:
"Without FCC action, this existing inequity is likely to be exacerbated by the increasing number of schools that are suspending in-person classes and have transitioned to remote learning over the internet to protect the health of students, faculty, and staff. Temporarily changing E-rate rules to allow financial support for home internet access would be of immense help to schools, students, and families at this time."
The letter was signed by 16 Senate Democrats, including Sen. Kamala Harris (D-N.Y.), Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), and Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), among others.
As schools in the United States close amid the coronavirus outbreak, it has shed light on the digital divide—the gap in the country of those who have access to the internet and those who do not.
Closing that gap has been a stated goal of both Democrats and Republicans.