Even as schools open their doors and invite students back to the classroom, the future of the K–12 sector is unpredictable. Many schools are still opting for remote and hybrid teaching models — proving that the learning experience will never quite be the same after the COVID-19 crisis. But for many low-income and rural students still unable to tune into online classes due to a lack of resources, additional support is needed.
The Emergency Connectivity Fund (ECF) Program established by the Federal Communications Commission — totaling more than $7.1 billion — seeks to narrow the longstanding digital inequity the pandemic brought to the forefront.
This new round of funding, which is a part of the greater American Rescue Plan Act passed earlier this year, provides the money needed to help students, school staff and library patrons access the devices and broadband connection they need for successful learning. The program also extends to schools and libraries in Tribal governments. Eligible edtech and broadband services for purchase through the program include:
- Laptops and tablets up to $400
- Wi-Fi hotspots up to $250
- Installation, activation and initial configuration of approved equipment
Using existing E-Rate guidelines, funds will first be allocated to communities determined most in need. Organizations that are eligible for E-Rate are qualified to request ECF Program funds.
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A deeper look
Once the filing window opens, organizations will have 45 days to apply for reimbursement of eligible equipment and services purchased between July 1, 2021, and June 30, 2022. If funding remains after the initial filing window, the FCC may open a second window for the reimbursement of eligible purchases made between March 1, 2020, and June 30, 2021. The FCC will not require a competitive bid process; however, there may be local or regional bidding requirements that schools and libraries must follow if applicable.
The ECF is independent of the E-Rate program, a program that helps make internet access more affordable to schools in need. While similar in their goals and requirements, the ECF Program expands on E-Rate offerings with the inclusion of devices eligible for off-campus use. The ECF Program is also not to be confused with the Emergency Broadband Benefit program, a separate funding source for households struggling to afford internet access.
Unlike these other programs, the ECF provides reimbursements for equipment purchased, rather than offering the resources at a discounted rate. In this case, a reimbursement means the funds may be used to subsidize equipment that costs more than the guidelines permit. Organizations can even potentially receive payment for equipment purchased beginning early last year.
Similar to the E-Rate program, libraries are eligible for funding under the ECF. Libraries have played a vital role in bridging the digital divide, providing access to edtech devices and internet connection to those who can’t afford the tools themselves. The inclusion of libraries in this funding will help provide resources free of charge for successful distance learning in underserved communities.
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Planning for success
With new funding available, organizations are quickly trying to learn the ins-and-outs to prepare for the opening of the filing window. But with much still unknown about the future of K–12 education, planning can seem like a daunting task. To make the most of the filing application, an assessment of current and future needs is crucial.
The ECF Program, in conjunction with several other relief funds established earlier this year, puts organizations in a unique position. By leveraging federal support, schools can enhance curriculum and encourage successful learning during a trying time. And although there is still much work to be done to span the digital divide, these funding sources offer a promising start in the right direction. With a strategic approach and the right tools, schools can create a powerful and immersive remote learning experience for online learners.