Pandemic lessons: New federal funding aims to help schools close digital divide

Erin Bamer
York Dispatch
Dallastown Intermediate School fourth-grader Ava Montour, 9, sits at her desk in the family dining room while remote learning with her class from her home in Springfield Township, Tuesday, Jan. 19, 2021. Dawn J. Sagert photo

The state Department of Education announced a new federal funding program Tuesday that will help schools and libraries close the digital divide. 

The Emergency Connectivity Fund, which is administered by the Federal Communications Commission, is a $7.17 billion temporary program that will help cover costs associated with digital learning for off-campus use by students, school staff and library guests, according to a department news release. 

The fund was created through the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 and is considered the nation’s largest single effort to ensure students have access to the digital devices and resources they need for the new school year.

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The Emergency Connectivity Fund will help pay for modems, routers, Wi-Fi hotspots, laptops, tablets and Chromebooks, up to $400 per device purchased between July 1, 2021, and June 30, 2022. Applications for the program are open and will close Aug. 13. 

“Digital devices and reliable internet are critical resources for learners of all ages; however, the pandemic has increased inequities in access,” state Secretary of Education Noe Ortega said in the news release. “The ECF program will help schools across the state connect classrooms and communities, close the digital divide, and create digital equity.”

The program is new enough that local school districts have not yet decided whether it is something they wish to pursue. Over the past year, because of the COVID-19 pandemic, school districts across York County have made extra efforts to bridge the digital divide for their students. Increasing technology costs played a big role in several districts' budgets for the 2021-22 school year. 

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Northern York County School District Superintendent Steven Kirkpatrick said his district is reviewing the program. Last year, he said, the district used federal programs to provide hotspots to students and their families. 

In the Red Lion Area School District, officials recently installed equipment on two radio towers in the hope of providing internet access to 100 students over the next year. Tim Smith, the district's supervisor of instructional practice and technology integration, said district officials are also reviewing the federal program. 

Red Lion is already able to provide each student with a digital device, but Smith many of the devices are aging and in need of an upgrade. The program may allow the district to improve connections to students.