A student checks out a laptop from school in Alpaugh, Calif. (Photo by Julie Leopo/EdSource)

California education officials working to equip all students with computers and internet at home announced a new initiative on Wednesday that could connect up to 1 million students with internet-enabled tablets during distance learning this school year.

Nearly 97% of California’s 6.2 million students will start the next school year from their homes as the number of coronavirus cases continues to increase across the state. But nearly 700,000 students are still without the technology they need in order to participate in online classes while schools are closed for in-person instruction, according to the latest estimates from the California Department of Education.

State education leaders have made closing the gap between students who have access to technology at home and those who do not — known as the digital divide — a priority since schools closed for in-person instruction in March. On Aug. 5, those efforts got a major boost from Apple and T-Mobile, which have agreed to provide discounted iPads with built-in LTE internet for up to 1 million California students. School districts will buy the devices and provide them free of charge to students.

“As Californians, we have a shared commitment to ensure every student has access to the basic tools needed to connect to their learning, succeed in today’s world, and pursue their dreams,” said State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond. “This commitment provides schools across the state a unique chance to put devices in the hands of students now, while potentially making longer term investments that can help us remove these inequities once and for all.”

100,000 iPads set for distribution

At least 100,000 iPads will be ready for districts over the two months in time for back to school, state education officials said, and the companies will continue to fill requests while supplies are available through the end of 2020. The cost will vary depending on district size and needs, but administrators can expect to pay around $580 per student, officials said.

That’s a significant amount of money, especially for districts strapped for resources during the coronavirus pandemic, some viewers pointed out during a webinar on Wednesday when the deal was announced. Chromebooks, another popular computing device used in schools, start at $179. However, that does not include separate internet subscription costs.

Districts hoping to get these devices into students’ hands before school starts in only a couple of weeks can apply for funding to help make purchases. Nearly $5.3 billion is available in one-time state funding through the CARES Act, and districts can use these dollars in a number of ways to prevent learning loss during the pandemic, including purchasing technology and internet access for students during distance learning.

This year, school districts will be required to confirm whether students have access to the technology they need in order to fully participate in distance learning, according to requirements included in the 2020-21 state budget.

Chromebooks, Wi-Fi hot spots

Many school districts still need to find computers and internet service for students before the new school year begins. But many stores and distributors are waiting for devices such as Chromebooks, laptops and Wi-Fi hot spots to restock, causing major delays in filling orders.

State officials on Wednesday said it would take an estimated 12 weeks before more distance learning equipment could be available in such large numbers.

“We know there has been a rush and demand for hot spots, and in many cases, there has been nothing available for weeks,” Thurmond said, noting that some districts do not use Apple hardware or might prefer to wait until other products come back in stock. “We don’t want our students waiting for 12 weeks to have access to a great machine that allows them access to distance learning.”

T-Mobile service area

T-Mobile’s service area covers large swaths of California, but coverage maps show that there are still large pockets not served by the cellular company. Providing internet in those areas will still require longer-term solutions like building out broadband infrastructure, Thurmond said.

“Coverage maps are grossly misrepresented,” one attendee, Joseph Robert Silveira, said in a comment during the webinar on Wednesday. “It says my district has full coverage, but if you take a T-Mobile hot spot in my district there is very little coverage anywhere.”

In areas that T-Mobile does not serve, the company will work with school districts to connect the iPads with service from other providers, according to Michael Kantz, executive vice president of T-Mobile for Business.

“If districts can share where student addresses are before deployment, we can tell you in advance where we cover and where we don’t so we can get the correct solution to students the first time,” Kantz said. “Education is the great leveler in our society, but only if everyone can access it.”

Story originally published by EdSource.