U.S. Sens. Tammy Duckworth, (D-IL) and Amy Klobuchar, (D-MN), hold a news conference at the 95th Street CTA terminal in Chicago on March 18, 2019.

U.S. Sens. Tammy Duckworth, (D-IL) and Amy Klobuchar, (D-MN), hold a news conference at the 95th Street CTA terminal in Chicago on March 18, 2019. (Terrence Antonio James/Chicago Tribune/TNS)

WASHINGTON - With millions of students stranded at home for the duration of the academic year and questions persisting about whether the COVID-19 pandemic will allow schools to reopen in the fall, lawmakers and federal agencies are weighing the best ways to help a particularly vulnerable population of students - those without a home internet connection.

At a Senate Commerce Committee hearing last week, Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., described a scene from one of her state's tribal areas: only one house in a neighborhood in which the occupants could afford internet service and a group of children gathered on its front lawn to do their homework.

"We just can't have that continue into the summer and into the rest of the year," Klobuchar said.

About 12 million children in the United States don't have access to high-speed internet at home, according to a 2018 estimate by the Joint Economic Committee. That places them on one side of what has become known as the homework gap, the divide between students who can take their studies home with them and those who must find another signal elsewhere.

Children of color suffer from the homework gap more than others, but the problem is felt wherever family incomes are low. According to an analysis of 2015 census data by the Pew Research Center, 41% of black households and 38% of Hispanic households with an annual income less than $30,000 lacked at-home broadband, compared with 35% for white households in the same income category. These students are among the most affected by school closures ordered as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Congressional Democrats have proposed new spending measures and regulatory changes designed to help. The House Democrats' latest coronavirus relief package, a $3 trillion measure that passed the House last Friday, would authorize the Federal Communications Commission to award $5 billion to schools and libraries "to provide internet service ... to students and teachers, prioritizing those without internet access at home," according to a summary of the bill.

Grant recipients could use the funding for laptops and Wi-Fi hotspots to keep students and teachers connected, with 5% of the funding set aside for students living on tribal lands. The bill would also codify the terms of the FCC's "Keep America Connected" pledge by prohibiting service providers from abandoning customers who cannot pay as a result of the pandemic.

The House Democrats' bill isn't the first such effort. Sen. Edward J. Markey, D-Mass, has introduced a bill that would provide a $4 billion cash infusion for the FCC's E-rate program, which helps fund technology in schools and libraries. The bill is similar to House legislation introduced by Rep. Grace Meng, D-N.Y., in early May, except that it doubles the amount the E-rate program would receive.

"We cannot allow the 'homework gap' to become a larger 'learning gap' during the coronavirus pandemic," Markey said in a statement. "Without immediate action by Congress, and $4 billion in E-Rate funding, the students of low-income families, immigrants, communities of color and rural areas are at risk of being left behind."

Klobuchar herself introduced a bill last week that would provide $1 billion to help college students of color continue their studies.

Congress already provided $16 billion in its third COVID-19 relief law for the Education Department to provide grants to states to expand access to distance learning. The GOP-controlled FCC is working with the department to disburse those funds. The FCC has also received pledges from hundreds of private internet companies to not cut access to customers who miss a payment during the pandemic.

Republicans in Congress joined Democrats in enacting the third relief law, but none of the current legislation has a clear path to becoming law. The House Democrats' latest relief bill stands little chance of reaching President Donald Trump's desk, with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., declaring it a "totally unserious" proposal.

Education groups and other advocates say not nearly enough has been done to help students without internet access. The American Civil Liberties Union, the National Education Association, and the telecommunications industry are backing Markey's bill, which has 44 Senate co-sponsors. No Republicans have signed on.

The ACLU asked Congress last week to appropriate between $2 billion and $3 billion monthly for a broadband fund "that will provide free, sufficient, and sustained broadband Internet access service for all eligible households."

The funding provided by the earlier coronavirus relief package is a step in the right direction but "will not be sufficient to close the homework gap between students with sufficient access to the internet and those without," the ACLU said in a letter to congressional leaders.

FCC Commissioner Ajit Pai, who oversees the E-rate program, has questioned the legality of using the program's funds to purchase at-home learning devices because the law authorizing the program says funds should be used for classroom purchases, according to a statement provided to Bloomberg. FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel, a Democrat, has disputed Pai's interpretation.

The agency loosened restrictions on schools and libraries that take part in the E-rate program, authorizing a rule change in late March to make it easier for internet service providers to "gift" technology to schools.

"We strongly encourage service providers and equipment makers to partner with schools and libraries to provide mobile hotspots and other broadband-enabled devices to students to help bridge the digital divide during the coronavirus pandemic," Pai said in a statement. Pai also said he would continue working with Congress on establishing a new "Remote Learning Initiative," which he said "would allow us to use federal funds to support in-home equipment for (...) students impacted by the coronavirus pandemic."

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