September 17, 2020

As School Year Begins, Van Hollen, Markey Lead Colleagues in Demanding Urgent Action by FCC to Connect Students to Online Learning

FCC need not, and should not, wait for Congress to act to close the “homework gap”

Today, U.S. Senators Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) and Edward J. Markey (D-Mass) were joined by Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), Ranking Member Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) and over 30 of their colleagues in a letter to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) urging it to immediately utilize the E-Rate program to provide internet connectivity to students at home. Due to the coronavirus pandemic, students across the country are increasingly attending virtual classrooms. Yet, studies indicate that as many as 16 million children in the United States lack internet access at home and are unable to participate in online learning. These students are disproportionally from communities of color, low-income households, and rural areas. 

The E-Rate Program is, and has been for more than two decades, an essential source of funding to connect the nation’s K-12 schools and libraries to the internet. 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. However, the FCC has narrowly construed its ability to act during the current emergency, needlessly leaving millions of children at risk of falling behind in their studies. 

“The FCC has the power to help mitigate the impact of the coronavirus on our most vulnerable families,” write the lawmakers in their letter to FCC Chairman Ajit Pai. “We now urge you in the strongest possible terms to utilize this authority to provide internet connectivity and devices for children in need. School bells across the country have started to ring, but without immediate action, many students are at risk of never making it to class.” 

The full text of the letter is available here. 

In addition to this letter, Senator Van Hollen has previously urged leadership to include dedicated funding for closing the homework gap within the federal coronavirus response. In June, he helped introduce the Coronavirus Child Care and Education Relief Act, which would also provide $4 billion in E-rate funding. Additionally, Senator Van Hollen has written to the State of Maryland requesting that they allocate funds from the CARES Act toward providing web access and devices to students. Prior to the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, Van Hollen had introduced legislation to address this systemic issue long-term. 

The letter is also signed by Senators Michael Bennet (D-Colo.), Maggie Hassan (D-N.H.), Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii), Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.), Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), Tammy Baldwin (D-Wisc.), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.), Cory Booker (D.N.J.), Tim Kaine (D-Va.), Mark Udall (D-N.M.), Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), Jack Reed (D-R.I.), Patty Murray (D-Wash.), Jacky Rosen (D-Nev.), Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.), Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), Angus King (I-Maine), Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii), Gary Peters (D-Mich.), Tina Smith (D-Minn.), Bob Casey, Jr, (D-Penn.), Catherine Cortez Masto (D-Nev.), Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), Kamala Harris (D-Calif.), Ben Cardin (D-Md.), Pat Leahy (D-Vt.), and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.). 

Every Senator who signed today’s letter also cosponsored the Emergency Educational Connections Act, legislation that would appropriate at least $4 billion to be delivered through the E-Rate program to equip students with internet connectivity and devices during the ongoing pandemic. These lawmakers are fighting to ensure that Congress enacts this legislation as part of the next coronavirus relief package. However, the FCC need not – and should not – wait for Congress to act.