Sen. Ed Markey and a coalition of more than three dozen Democratic senators urged the Federal Communications Commission on Thursday to boost internet connectivity for students whose homes have turned into classrooms during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Democratic senators, in a letter to FCC Chairman Ajit Pai, urged the FCC to “immediately utilize the E-Rate program” to provide internet access for students at home during remote or hybrid learning, with 16 million children across the U.S. lacking internet access.
“These students are disproportionally from communities of color, low-income households and rural areas,” the senators wrote. “Without urgent action by the FCC, we are deeply concerned that they will fall further behind in their studies. The current emergency demands that you take immediate action to help our nation’s most vulnerable children. We specifically call on you to utilize the E-Rate program to close this ‘homework gap’ without further delay.”
Markey authored the original E-Rate program as part of the Telecommunications Act of 1996. The program has provided $52 billion to help students get online in schools and libraries nationwide, including $740 million in Massachusetts, according to Markey’s office. The senators argue the FCC “has clear authority and available funding under the E-Rate program to provide connections at students’ homes — which, because schools have had to close their doors, have become de facto classrooms.”
The group said FCC must reconsider how it defines a “classroom,” arguing the commission “has narrowly construed its ability to act during the current emergency, needlessly leaving millions of children at risk of falling behind in their studies.”
MassLive reached out to the FCC for comment on Thursday.
The letter was led by Markey, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer and Sens. Maria Cantwell, Chris Van Hollen, Michael Bennet, Maggie Hassan and Brian Schatz. Sen. Elizabeth Warren also signed the letter.
The group also co-sponsored the Emergency Educational Connections Act, which would provide at least $4 billion through the E-Rate program to equip students with online access and devices for the duration of the pandemic. The lawmakers are pushing for this bill to become part of the next COVID-19 stimulus package.