California needs at least 708,400 laptops and 322,100 Wi-Fi hot spots to connect all students to the internet from home, a significant jump from previous estimates, according to data from the California Department of Education shared with EdSource on June 17.
In March, the global pandemic caused schools across California to close and implement distance learning. Districts since then have had to rapidly procure laptops and Wi-Fi hot spots so students can virtually connect with teachers from home. But thousands of students remained unconnected as the school year came to a close this spring, reflecting a digital divide — a gap between those who can participate in distance learning and those who can’t.
When schools moved to distance learning, state education officials estimated they needed 150,000 laptops and didn’t include hot spots. By May, that tally rose to 400,000 laptops and 290,000 hot spots. Even with the devices that have been delivered, California still needs at least $500 million to fill the latest estimated need for home computers and internet access for K-12 students, California Department of Education stated in a press release on June 22.
Now, as districts plan for resuming classes this fall, pressure is mounting to close the digital divide.
Education officials recently completed a survey of California districts to determine technology needs, and the results show the digital divide persists and the need for devices continues to grow. The California Bridging the Digital Divide Fund has collected about $12.3 million of its $500 million goal, according to Jessica Howard, CEO of the Californians Dedicated to Education Foundation, the nonprofit organization that is partnering with the California Department of Education and is overseeing the digital divide fund.
At least 37,000 laptops have also been pledged by donors, state officials shared, but worldwide device shortages and backorders have delayed distribution.
‘We still have urgent and gaping needs’
“Summer it is crucial for additional donors to step up in support of districts preparing for reopening,” Howard said, adding that private donor funds can reach schools quickly this summer while public dollars may take months more to distribute. “While we have definitely made a dent, we still have urgent and gaping needs throughout the state.”
Currently, it appears most schools this fall will likely have some combination of in-person and online classes, known as a hybrid model of instruction. Official guidance from the California Department of Public Health on school reopening suggests that districts should prepare to practice social distancing, including potential hybrid models.
As schools closed in March, California education officials moved swiftly to create a statewide digital divide task force as well as a digital divide fund to collect donations for devices for students. About 56,700 laptops and 94,000 hot spots have been sent to districts across the state so far, according to Daniel Thigpen, director of communications for the California Department of Education. The devices include laptops and tablets donated by Google, Microsoft and Amazon, and will be delivered to 269 districts, schools, districts and county offices.
California Department of Education also announced that it will be granting $5 million to local districts to purchase 20,000 more devices or hot spots using funds are from the California Public Utilities Commission’s California Advanced Services Fund.
Whether or not a student has access to computers and the internet can also affect whether or not they are able to research colleges, or apply for financial aid and jobs, former U.S. Education Secretary John King Jr. said in a recent panel discussion about the digital divide in America.
“This is really one of those pivot points,” said King, who is the CEO of the Education Trust, a national education nonprofit that researches and advocates for equity in education. “Now, today, we have to have an ambitious response to this crisis that helps us come back stronger and that includes making sure people have access to the internet.”
One of the first districts to receive devices through the department of education’s digital divide initiative was Farmersville Unified School District, a small district in rural Tulare County. The district was already moving toward equipping all of its students with Chromebooks over a three-year period just before the pandemic hit, but district leaders hadn’t completed that process when schools had to close.
The district had only about 1,300 devices to split among 2,500 students when campuses closed.
“We are a rural community and many of our families work in the agricultural business sector,” Superintendent Paul Sevillano said. “We know we had a tremendous need here.”
After submitting a request for devices through the digital divide fund, Sevillano received 1,500 Chromebooks and 200 Wi-Fi hot spots. He said the donations allowed the district to equip all of its students with computing devices, but there’s still a need to bring in more hotspots to connect those who still need home internet access, about 30 percent of the district’s students.
Nearly 95 percent of students enrolled in Farmersville Unified are Latino and 93 percent qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, according to data from the California Department of Education. The superintendent said on average, 62 percent of the district’s students participated in distance learning during school closures, and students without internet access would turn in paper packets and other hard-copy assignments.
Elsewhere around California, there have been glitches for some students who have benefited from the free devices. Students in both urban and rural areas have reported issues with spotty and slow internet service on hot spots, and some rural areas lack any cellular service, which is required for mobile hotspots.
Black, Latino, rural and low-income California households are disproportionately unconnected to the internet, according to a 2019 report by the Public Policy Institute of California. Advocates stress that without equal opportunity to engage in distance learning, students risk falling behind their peers and widening existing gaps in test scores between Black and Latino students and their white and Asian peers.
A recent report by management consulting firm McKinsey & Company projected that learning loss during school closures will likely impact low-income, Black and Latino students the most. The report cites data from Curriculum Associates, which creates digital instruction software, showing 60 percent of low-income students regularly logged into online instruction during the pandemic, compared with 90 percent of high-income students.
“It’s critical that we continue to work hard to meet the technological needs of students, particularly now that the COVID-19 pandemic has shown that distance learning is critical during times of crisis to ensure continued student growth and achievement,” Senator Connie Leyva, D-Chino, said during the latest digital divide task force hearing on June 19. “We must capitalize on the current momentum to make lasting change for students and communities that urgently need reliable digital access.”
Along with pooling resources to help provide districts with devices, the digital divide task force has also been meeting regularly with internet companies to find ways to bring internet access to thousands of California students who still need it. Verizon, which set up an agreement with the Los Angeles Unified School District to provide free internet service for families who could not afford it, recently announced that it would extend the offer to any district in Verizon’s service areas.
Internet companies such as Cox Communications shared on in the meeting ways they have found success reaching low-income families who might not be aware of service options, including in-person sign-ups in the community, and partnering with schools and food banks to distribute flyers in English and Spanish about different discounted offerings.
However, some families have reported that they were denied internet discounts or faced other challenges once they reached various companies’ customer service representatives. Ryan Smith, chief external officer for Partnership for LA Schools, said during a May digital divide task force hearing that one woman in Los Angeles was told she was ineligible because the person who lived in her house previously had fallen behind on internet service bills.
More federal funding expected
State Superintendent Tony Thurmond pressed internet companies in the hearing on June 19 whether they will apply for $2.5 billion in funding that California is expected to receive through the Federal Communications Committee’s Rural Digital Opportunity Fund. Deadline to apply for the funding, which would cover 10 years of costs for providers to build and maintain broadband infrastructure in rural areas, is July 15.
For Sevillano, the superintendent in Farmersville, connecting all students to the internet isn’t only about keeping up with assignments. It is also a means to provide virtual counseling and other vital mental health supports during the pandemic and any future school closures.
“We have to make sure that technology is in place so students thrive not only academically, but also socially and emotionally,” he said.