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How Schools And Families Can Use Programs To Help Close The Digital Divide Exposed By COVID-19

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A pre-pandemic photo of Indian Creek students

With schools forced to move remote, the pandemic has revealed that many families don’t have solid internet connections at home if any at all.

Mindy Fiscus, the Digital Access Coordinator at the state’s Learning Technology Center, says there are plenty of state and federal programs -- some created during the pandemic -- that can help close the “digital divide.” That includes the Emergency Broadband Benefit.

“It basically allows any home that qualifies a $50 credit on their internet access bill,” said Fiscus. “If your kid qualifies for free and reduced lunch, you are eligible for that. One other qualifier is a college student with a Pell Grant.”

The Emergency Connectivity Fund essentially allows schools to pay some families’ internet bills and get reimbursed 100% by the federal government.

Fiscus says these programs are still open. And she hopes they continue to be funded long after the pandemic.

At the state-funded Learning Technology Center, it’s her job to make sure schools are connected. Nearly every school in Illinois has internet, save for outliers like one on an island in the middle of a river in western Illinois and a few inside the Shawnee National Forest. But many schools across the state don’t have fast-enough connections.

Just 34% of school districts in Illinois meet the FCC’s bandwidth goals — below the national average. Now that just about everyone is connected, Fiscus says it’s time to get them up to speed. That comes as demand has substantially increased during the pandemic with schools relying more and more on devices and remote learning.

“What would have worked for a school district that had 200 megabits when we started the pandemic is now like, ‘Wait a second, we don't have enough internet,’” she said.

Fiscus helps school districts get the internet they need -- and help them pay for it with federal discounts like E-Rate. If they need E-Rate special construction projects to upgrade their internet, districts can apply for a matching grant. 26 school districts over the past two years have received matching grants to pay for projects they otherwise might not be able to afford, according to state data.

Fiscus also says schools can often save money by switching their internet service to the state-run broadband consortium, the Illinois Century Network.

“One school district that I worked with, they were paying $3,000 a month for Internet access for their five buildings, and by choosing to do a build and to work with the state consortium, they're able to then have zero cost on internet,” she said. “So that's the cost of the salary and benefits for a teacher.”

She says the Illinois Century Network offers other services like security for districts concerned about ransomware attacks.