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States Use CARES Act Funds to Address Digital Divide

By Austin Reid and Jocelyn Salguero | Oct. 28, 2020 | State Legislatures Magazine

Recent polls show that a majority of America’s students are going to school entirely online this fall. Yet, as many as 16 million students, or 30%, lack adequate internet access or devices for online learning. While this “digital divide” separating students with access to resources from those without is a bipartisan concern, fiscal headwinds challenge states’ capacity to bridge the divide on their own. Fortunately, a variety of funding streams through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act are supporting states in providing students with the resources they need to engage in online learning.

Based on analysis of publicly announced plans for CARES Act funds, at least 39 states have pledged funds to address the digital divide in K-12 education. Nearly $1.3 billion has been dedicated exclusively to supporting online learning, while an additional $388 million provides districts the option to address the digital divide. Funding sources for this analysis include the Governor’s Emergency Education Relief Fund (GEER), the Coronavirus Relief Fund, the Department of Education’s Rethink K-12 Education Models state competitive grants, and the discretionary state set-aside in the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) Fund. While the much larger district portion of the ESSER fund can also be used to address the digital divide, there is currently no way to track how districts are spending the $12.15 billion they received through ESSER.

The digital divide occurs across three lines: internet access, device availability and online learning resources. Below are highlights of the range of strategies states are employing to help students learn virtually this school year.

Internet Access

The most common strategy is expanding temporary internet access points for students. Georgia and West Virginia (with its Kids Connect Initiative) are adding broadband extenders to school and community sites. Arkansas and Oklahoma are distributing wireless hot spots to school districts across the state, while Alabama is spending $10 million to equip all school buses with Wi-Fi capabilities.

A smaller portion of states are providing direct support to students and families to purchase internet access. The District of Columbia and Connecticut are using GEER funds to cover at least 12 months of internet bills for eligible families.

At least two states are creating permanent broadband infrastructure. Arizona is spending $40 million to install broadband conduit and fiber to reach rural communities, while Maryland is pledging $20 million to construct a “wireless education network” for students in its rural areas.

Device Availability

Most states are providing funds for districts to purchase and distribute devices to students. Illinois, Maryland, North Carolina and Tennessee are distributing a collective $212.5 million for districts to purchase hardware for online learning. Other states are providing device and connectivity support directly to families. Alabama has allocated $100 million for a public-private partnership, called Alabama Broadband Connectivity for Students, that provides vouchers for families to pay for equipment and high-speed internet service. Similarly, Maine’s Department of Education bought nearly 15,000 internet service contracts, most of which are through Wi-Fi-enabled tablets that can be used as hotspots.

Online Learning Resources

States are also investing in statewide learning platforms to facilitate remote learning and teacher professional development. Virginia is spending to $3.5 million expand its online learning platform, Virtual Virginia, which will allow teachers to create and share content, provide personalized instruction and facilitate professional development. Montana is expanding its learning platform, called the Montana Digital Academy, which will increase enrollment opportunities for students and extend remote proctoring services for credit-recovery students.

Oklahoma has invested $12 million in Learn Anywhere Oklahoma, which allows schools to access high quality digital content, including Advanced Placement courses. Pennsylvania also plans to invest in real-time instruction to improve remote learning and support for students with complex learning needs.

NCSL will continue to track how states are using their CARES Act funds to address the digital divide in education.

Austin Reid is the education committee director in NCSL’s State-Federal Division. Jocelyn Salguero is a policy associate in NCSL’s Washington, D.C., office, working with the Budgets and Revenue and Education committees.

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