A student in Alpaugh Unified checks out a Chromebook at the beginning of the school day. (Photo by Julie Leopo, via EdSource)

Thousands of California students who lack access to the internet or computers at home will soon have the tools they need to get online as their schools remain closed in response to the coronavirus pandemic.

On Wednesday, Google announced that it will donate 4,000 Chromebooks to students and free Wi-Fi to 100,000 rural households for a minimum of three months.

“This was a substantial enhancement that came just at the right time,” Gov. Gavin Newsom said in a briefing on Wednesday. On Tuesday, State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond said that schools can expect to stay closed through summer, but that education will continue remotely.

“Google is proud to be working with Governor Newsom and partners to help bridge the digital divide in our home state,” Google and Alphabet CEO Sundar Pichai said, “to help make distance learning more accessible during the COVID-19 crisis.”

As California schools transition from in-person to distance learning to mitigate the spread of the coronavirus, accessing the internet and computers at home remains a barrier to learning for many students.

Only about a third of California households in rural areas are subscribed to internet service, compared with 78 percent in urban areas, according to an EdSource analysis of data from the California Public Utilities Commission.

About 20 percent of all California students can’t get on to the internet at home, said Linda Darling-Hammond, president of the California State Board of Education, during a press conference with Newsom and Thurmond on Wednesday.

Darling-Hammond said on Wednesday that the donation from Google could cut the number of students without access to internet at home by nearly half.

“I’m hopeful that by the time we resume school-based instruction, we will in fact have closed that digital gap and taught a lot of people, kids and teachers and parents, how to engage in learning online,” she said.

Even in urban and suburban parts of the state, education officials say that distance learning could be a struggle because not all students have equal access to technology at home.

In Palo Alto Unified, which is located only a few miles from Google’s headquarters, Superintendent Don Austin said that some families of low-income students in his district can not afford internet at home.

Several internet and telecommunications companies in recent weeks also announced discounts on service for families that can not afford internet to assist with distance learning efforts. Districts are also using their own funds to equip students and teachers for online and distance learning.

San Francisco Unified has distributed more than 5,200 Chromebooks to students in third to 12th grades since it closed schools in March. District officials estimate they need to distribute an additional 5,000 this week to prepare for distance learning, which is expected to begin mid-April.

In March, Los Angeles Unified announced it had authorized an emergency investment of $100 million to provide laptops for students who don’t already have one, along with a partnership with Verizon to offer internet access for students.

“This is an unprecedented commitment, but a necessary one,” Los Angeles Unified Superintendent Austin Beutner said. “Many of our families are struggling to make ends meet and cannot afford to do this on their own — but their children deserve the same opportunity those in more affluent communities have.”

Story originally published by EdSource.

Sydney Johnson