We've started another school year during the COVID-19 pandemic, as cases of the Delta variant among children are surging across the United States, resulting in rattled nerves, quarantines and some closed classrooms. Additionally, schools from Louisiana to New Jersey suffered the impacts of Hurricane Ida and navigated disruptions because of flooding and storm damage. Tens of thousands of students in Oregon and California have been forced to leave their homes and sometimes their towns to escape wildfires and unrelenting smoke.
Certainly, distance learning because of COVID-19, fires or floods is not an ideal situation. But it may be the “new normal” for the foreseeable future in America. In order to equip teachers and caregivers to keep everyone learning during these unsettling times (and beyond), Congress must extend the Emergency Connectivity Fund (ECF) in the budget reconciliation package. The Energy and Commerce Committee is off to a good start, including new ECF funds in the bill it approved this week. The ECF is a learning lifeline for millions of vulnerable students.
Having the capacity for flexible learning from anywhere is the smart thing to do — even when conditions improve. The American Rescue Plan Act provided the most significant commitment to distance learning to date, when it allocated $7.1 billion for schools and libraries to support distance learning through the ECF. During the first window for applications, requests for over 70 percent of the allocated funds came in from every state and territory. These initial requests to the program would enable schools and libraries to provide more than 9 million devices and 5 million broadband connections to some of the 16 million students in the K-12 digital divide, who are predominantly students from low-income communities or students of color.
But the progress may stop. The program is expected to exhaust its funding by mid-October, with millions of students still unconnected. If that happens, schools again will be forced to scramble to connect students and may see them fall back into the worrying silence of the digital divide. Learning would be disrupted, and important connections with friends, teachers and essential institutions would be lost.
The good news is that the ECF is well positioned to support schools and libraries as they meet the digital needs of students at home. At the local level, schools and libraries are trusted institutions that know their communities. They provide important programs to connect students and offer support during disruptive emergencies. The services they provide are critical to the well-being of children, the success of communities, and the resilience of our nation.
Additionally, teachers now have the experience to flex between classroom and home. They are embracing new technologies as a result of the pandemic. Flexible learning offers families a critical link to important relationships that are key to weathering challenging times. When school districts are able to provide “one-to-one” access to devices and robust internet, students can access their classwork, talk to their teachers, and tap into free tutoring.
Congress must use the budget reconciliation package to extend funding for the Emergency Connectivity Fund to keep kids learning, support equitable access to education, and ensure communities are resilient in the face of crisis. Are we prepared to sustain learning as the country faces ongoing disruptions to in-person schooling? No, but we could be.
Sal Khan is the founder of the educational nonprofit Khan Academy, the free tutoring site Schoolhouse.world, and Khan Lab School.
James P. Steyer is the founder and CEO of Common Sense Media, a national nonprofit that advocates for safe technology and media for children and families.