Van Hollen: Federal Stimulus Money Should Go to Close ‘Homework Gap’

U.S. Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D). Photo by Danielle E. Gaines

Since winter, U.S. Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) has been advocating for federal funding to close “the homework gap” created when millions of students throughout the country lack access to reliable internet at home.

Now, with more than 120,000 schools closed throughout the U.S. to stop the spread of COVID-19, the issue is all the more important, Van Hollen said Wednesday.

In Maryland, all public schools are closed through at least April 24. School districts are implementing distance learning plans on a county-by-county basis.

And Van Hollen is pushing for state and county officials to use funding from the recently passed $2 trillion federal stimulus, called the CARES Act, to address the digital divide.

“The digital divide exposes inequities in many areas. But one of the most egregious is the homework gap because that clearly means lots of kids are being left behind and real quick,” Van Hollen said in an Wednesday telephone interview. “If we want to provide equal opportunity in education, we need to close the digital divide when it comes to homework.”

Maryland is expected to receive billions of dollars to aid workers, health care providers and businesses during the COVID-19 pandemic. Within the CARES Act, Maryland is expected to receive approximately $45.7 million in general education funding to be used at the governor’s discretion, an additional $207.8 million in K-12 education funding, and $183.5 million in higher education funding.

The stimulus also infuses the Rural Utility Service with an additional $25 million that can be used to promote broadband access, telemedicine and digital learning.

Right now, it’s unclear when the money will reach the states, but federal lawmakers are urging that it be speedy. Since the money is already committed, Van Hollen said local and state governments could start spending money for these purposes, assuming they have funds available.

The senator said schools throughout Maryland could do three things to help students immediately: purchase personal hotspot devices to allow internet connectivity at home, ensure access to reliable internet plans and provide students with computers or digital devices.

Van Hollen said the coronavirus pandemic has exacerbated the homework gap in Maryland and he’s received increased calls of concern.

According to the U.S. Senate Joint Economic Committee, as many as 12 million American students do not have access to the internet at home. About 16 percent of Maryland households with school-aged children do not have broadband at home and an estimated 12 percent do not have a computer at home, Van Hollen’s office said.

The homework gap affects students in both rural and urban areas and disproportionately affects lower-income students and students of color, Van Hollen said. And students without internet at home score lower in reading, math, and science.

Van Hollen sent a letter to Maryland Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R) on Wednesday morning encouraging him to leverage federal stimulus funding to address the homework gap.

“We must work together in light of this unprecedented disruption of K-12 education. We cannot afford for students to be left behind during this pandemic,” Van Hollen wrote.

The senator said he will urge school systems throughout Maryland to do the same.

And while the federal stimulus package and current need for distance learning might have a short-term impact on the homework gap, Van Hollen said he will also continue to push for a dedicated $2 billion to $4 billion federal funding stream to close the gap for years to come.

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Danielle E. Gaines
Danielle Gaines most recently worked for Bethesda Beat covering Montgomery County. Previously, she spent six years at The Frederick News-Post as the paper’s principal government and politics reporter for half that time, covering courts and legal affairs before that. She also reported for the now-defunct The Gazette of Politics and Business in Maryland and previously worked as a county government and education reporter at the Merced Sun-Star in California’s Central Valley.