The Federal Communications Commission is opening a second application window for school districts to tap into a newly created $7 billion fund to pay for devices and internet connectivity tools used off campus.
The agency has decided, however, that districts won’t yet be able to use that money to get reimbursed for remote learning costs incurred early in the pandemic — and it’s not clear if that will happen at all now. Instead, the FCC says school systems and libraries will continue using the fund to shore up unmet remote learning needs for the ongoing 2021-2022 academic year.
In March, Congress approved roughly $7.2 billion as part of a COVID-19 stimulus package to address the so-called homework gap.
That money — known as the Emergency Connectivity Fund — can be used by districts for laptops, tablets, Wi-Fi hotspots, modems, and routers to connect students and staff at home or wherever learning is taking place away from school buildings.
When the FCC wrote rules for how to distribute the money, it considered multiple application windows if funding allowed: one period covering future purchases and one for retroactive purchases.
The first application window, which closed on Aug. 13, drew requests for $5.1 billion, according to the FCC. It will pay for more than 9 million devices and 5.4 million broadband connections.
A nationally representative EdWeek Market Brief survey from this summer showed that a vast majority of districts administrators — 88 percent — said they planned to use money from the new connectivity fund to spend on one of three widely used types of laptops or tablets.
If all $5 billion of projects from the first round are approved, that would leave about $2 billion for the second filing window, which opens Sept. 28 and closes on Oct. 13.
But instead of allowing for retroactive purchases during that second application period, districts can use the remaining money only for remote learning equipment and services “received or delivered between July 1, 2021 and June 30, 2022,” the FCC said.
That means school systems and libraries planning to use the connectivity fund for expenses incurred early in the pandemic are out of luck — for now, at least.
Future Changes in Funding Options Are Possible
The time periods that the connectivity fund covers have been a source of discussion since rules were being drafted months ago.
In May, an FCC draft order released publicly showed the agency giving priority to school systems’ retroactive reimbursements, with the first proposed application window being dedicated to remote learning technology purchases made between the dates of July 1, 2020, and April 30, 2021.
The FCC, in the draft order, explained that making future expenditures the primary reimbursement target would have been “unfair to those schools and libraries that have already paid for eligible equipment and services,” and the commission noted it could be inconsistent with their mandate from Congress.
Some groups argued that the agency should show “no favoritism for new or prior expenditures.”
Other groups pushed for the FCC to implement a single application window stretching back to March 1, 2020 — around the time schools started making big remote learning purchases — and running through June 30, 2022. They argued that schools should be granted max flexibility when determining what remote learning costs to be reimbursed for.
“During these early months of the pandemic, other sources of federal relief funds were not readily available to defray these costs, leaving schools and libraries to make these purchases from already-thin local budgets,” a consortium of groups wrote to the FCC in May. “The need for prospective services and connected devices may be just as urgent as the need for reimbursement of past expenditures
In its final rule, the FCC opted on an initial 45-day filing period for districts to pay for remote learning equipment and services yet to be purchased for the upcoming school year. The agency also said it in its final rule it would plan to open a second application window for retroactive reimbursements if there was leftover money from the first round.
But the FCC built flexibility into the rulemaking, in case the first round of funding closed without meeting all the demand from school systems for remote learning future purchases. It allows the agency to create a second filing window for prospective purchases before giving districts the OK to get reimbursed for remote learning expenses incurred early in the pandemic.
A quick scan through the FCC’s public docket for the connectivity fund shows an array of school systems and libraries — like the Phoenix Union High School District or the Maxwell Municipal Schools in New Mexico — have recently requested waivers for the application deadline that passed last month, citing logistical issues with assessing unmet needs during the summer break.
In announcing the second filing window being focused on future purchases, the FCC cited as reasons the continued “outstanding demand” for devices and Wi-Fi hotspots “and the recent spike in coronavirus cases” attributed to the Delta variant, which has already caused districts to revert to more hybrid learning than previously anticipated early in the ongoing school year.
FCC spokeswoman Anne Veigle said the agency also recognized that some schools and libraries faced challenges applying because of the summer deadline for the first window.
Reg Leichty, a founder and partner at Foresight Law + Policy, said he believes some school districts and libraries that wanted to participate in the first round did not have time to complete the application process.
“If any money remains after the second round, they [the FCC] will likely turn to reimbursing past connectivity costs as contemplated by the Final Rule,” he said in an email.
Veigle said the FCC will have to “assess demand at the end of the second window and determine next steps for any remaining funds.”
And that means it remains an open question as to whether districts will ever be able to apply for retroactive remote learning reimbursements.