Wyden, Merkley Introduce Bill to Ensure All Students Have Access to Internet During COVID-19 Pandemic

Washington, D.C. – Oregon’s U.S. Sens. Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley today introduced legislation aimed at ensuring all K-12 students have adequate home internet connectivity and devices during the coronavirus pandemic.

The Emergency Educational Connections Act would give elementary and secondary schools and libraries, including tribal schools and libraries, $4 billion to provide Wi-Fi hotspots, modems, routers and internet-enabled devices to students, staff and patrons.

“With education forced to move online in order to keep students, teachers and staff safe throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, internet access has become even more essential. Students in Oregon and across the country shouldn’t be penalized for lacking internet access at home,” Wyden said. “I will keep fighting to close the homework gap and expand internet access to all. This $4 billion investment is critical to ensure the opportunity for success to all students, not just the fortunate few.” 

“If we’re going to make sure that every student in Oregon—regardless of the color of their skin, the zip code where they live, or where their parents work—has a shot at a top-notch education, we have to make sure they have the tools they need to complete their assignments,” said Merkley. “Yet, countless students in Oregon and across America are lacking reliable internet access at home, at a time when our school is happening at home. That’s a serious problem, and I’m going to keep fighting for the investments we need to fix it.”

The COVID-19 pandemic has shone a bright light on the “homework gap” experienced by the 12 million students in this country who lack internet access at home and cannot complete their homework. Research has shown that the homework gap affects students in both rural and urban areas and disproportionately hurts lower-income students and students of color.  Students without internet access at home consistently score lower in reading, math and science. As schools suspend in-person classes and transition to remote learning over the internet to protect the health of students, faculty and staff during the current public health emergency, the homework gap is growing. 

Specifically, the Emergency Educational Connections Act would:

  • Provide $4 billion in federal support for elementary and secondary schools and libraries, including tribal schools and libraries, to provide Wi-Fi hotspots, modems, routers, and internet-enabled devices (as well as internet service through such equipment) to students, staff, and patrons;
  • Allow schools and libraries to continue to use the equipment after the emergency period; and
  • Ensure schools and libraries prioritize support for those most in need, following the guidelines of the E-Rate program.

The E-Rate program, created as a part of the 1996 Telecommunications Act, is an essential source of funding to connect the nation’s schools and libraries to the internet. Since the E-Rate began nearly two decades ago, more than $52 billion has been committed nationwide to provide internet access for schools and libraries. 

As the COVID-19 pandemic develops, the E-Rate program offers an immediate solution that may help mitigate the impact on our most vulnerable families. Additional funding for E-Rate would greatly narrow the homework gap during the current crisis and help ensure that all students can continue to learn.

Wyden and Merkley have pushed for expanded internet access for all throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. In April, Wyden led a letter, including Merkley, to Lifeline internet service providers to expand service for low-income Americans, especially for students learning at home. Earlier this month, Wyden also pushed Comcast to open all of its public Wi-Fi networks, especially for students lacking access at home. This week Merkley led colleagues, including Wyden, in introducing new legislation to put a moratorium on internet shut-offs during the pandemic.

A copy of the bill text is available here.

Joining Wyden and Merkley to introduce this bill were U.S. Sens. Edward J. Markey, D-Mass., Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., Michael Bennet, D-Colo., Maggie Hassan, D-N.H., Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, Cory Booker, D-N.J., Doug Jones, D-Ala., Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., Angus King, I-Maine, Tammy Baldwin, D-Wisc., Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, Dick Durbin, D-Ill., Kamala Harris, D-Calif., Chris Murphy, D-Conn., Ben Cardin, D-Md., Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., Jack Reed, D-R.I., Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., Catherine Cortez Masto, D-Nev., Jacky Rosen, D-Nev., Mazie Hirono, D-Hawaii, Tina Smith, D-Minn., Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., Tom Udall, D-N.M., Gary Peters, D-Mich., Patty Murray, D-Wash., Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., Tim Kaine, D-Va., Robert Menendez, D-N.J., Bob Casey, Jr., D-Penn., Tom Carper, D-Del., Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., Chris Coons, D-Del., Martin Heinrich, D-N.M., Mark Warner, D-Va., Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., and John Tester, D-Mont.

James P. Steyer, CEO and Founder, Common Sense Media: “It was never acceptable that millions of kids could not access the internet at home for learning and engagement, but it is particularly wrong during this pandemic when nearly all school children have no choice but to learn from home this semester and, quite likely, this summer and fall. We have heard from teachers and parents in every part of the country about kids struggling without internet access and modern devices at home. That’s why this new legislation to connect all students now is vital. And I am optimistic that Congress will agree, on a bi-partisan basis, that we can, and we must, close the Homework Gap and the digital divide in its next stimulus package.”

JoAnn Gama, Co-founder and Chief Executive Officer, IDEA Public Schools: “For students in rural communities, small towns and big cities, it is critical we invest in expanding their home access to the internet. Closing the homework gap is an issue of academic and economic opportunity everywhere. We can pay a smaller bill now to keep students on track, or face larger costs to our society and economy down the line.”

The Emergency Educational Connections Act is supported by the following organizations: AASA The School Superintendents Association, Advance CTE, Alliance for Excellent Education, American Federation of School Administrators, American Federation of Teachers, AFLCIO, American Library Association, American Psychological Association, American School Counselor Association, ASCD, Association for Career and Technical Education, Association of Educational Service Agencies, Association of School Business Officials International (ASBO), Children’s Health Fund, Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning (CASEL), Committee for Children, Common Sense Media, CoSN – Consortium for School Networking, Council for Exceptional Children, Council of Administrators of Special Education, Family Centered Treatment Foundation, First Focus Campaign for Children, Girls Inc., IDEA Public Schools, International Society for Technology in Education, KIPP Foundation, Learning Forward, Magnet Schools of America, MENTOR: The National Mentoring Partnership, National Association for Music Education, National Association of Counties (NACo), National Association of Elementary School Principals, National Association of Federally Impacted Schools (NAFIS), National Association of Independent Schools, National Association of School Psychologists, National Association of Secondary School Principals, National Association of State Boards of Education, National Association of State Directors of Special Education (NASDSE), National Catholic Educational Association, National Center for Families Learning, National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM), National Education Association, National Forum to Accelerate, Middle-Grades Reform, National Rural Education Advocacy Consortium, National Rural Education Association, National School Boards Association (NSBA), Parents as Teachers, Public Knowledge, Project Tomorrow, Public Advocacy for Kids (PAK), SETDA (State Educational Technology Directors Association), Schools Healthy & Libraries Broadband Coalition (SHLB), Stand for Children, Teach For America, The Education Trust.

A web version of this release is available here.