Kyle Carter, right, community outreach manager of StreetCode Academy in East Palo Alto, hands a laptop to a student after schools moved to distance learning in March due to the COVID-19 pandemic. StreetCode is a nonprofit that provides free tech education to students in East Palo Alto and is now raising FUNDS to provide laptops and internet access to local students. (Photo courtesy of StreetCode Academy)

As schools around East Palo Alto reopen with virtual learning, educators are focused on providing tech support to low-income students so they can fully participate in school from home.

Like many California counties, San Mateo County is on the state’s COVID-19 watchlist, so its schools must conduct distance learning. Internet connectivity is a must, which can be a problem for some.

“Digital literacy has always been an issue in low-income and communities of color, and that is no different here,” said Trinya “Ms. T” Lynn, assistant principal at the Aspire East Palo Alto Phoenix Academy (EPAPA), a public middle school.  “I think for many families and youth this is the first time of having to engage so many digital apps at once.”

The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted a digital divide where more than 9,000 households in San Mateo County had no computers at home as of January 2020, according to StreetCode Academy, an East Palo Alto nonprofit that provides free technology classes and equipment. Nearly half of those households were Latino or Black.

Seeing this problem, educators prioritized providing devices and internet connections to students who might need it when schools moved to distance learning in March.

This Fall, things are no different, and for many East Palo Alto schools, the school year starts with a tech distribution to their students.

EPAPA distributed laptops to all 204 of their students in the spring and allowed them to keep them over the summer. They also helped families sign up for Comcast’s Internet Essentials package. On Aug. 17, during their first day of full classes this fall, 1 student out of 138 was not fully logged on, Lynn said.

Trinya Lynn of the Aspire East Palo Alto Phoenix Academy.

“I feel elated that my kids, given all of the obstacles, are able to access materials and tools that give them soft skills to be competitive in this [digital] space,” Lynn said.

The Ravenswood City School District, which serves East Palo Alto and eastern Menlo Park, also distributed tablets and hot spots to its families when distance learning first started in March.

By May, according to Ravenswood’s distance learning survey, 98% of 226 parents with a child in transitional kindergarten to the fifth grade, said their child had access to a digital device (laptop, Chromebook, tablet, iPad or computer). For grades sixth through eighth, 97% of 135 parents said their child had access.

As Ravenswood prepares to open its schools on Wednesday, Aug. 26, it is continuing to provide devices and connect students to Wi-Fi and mobile hot spots, through partnerships with the county and the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, a philanthropy started by Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan.

County, local nonprofits provide millions toward internet connectivity

Support for schools is also coming from the county, with San Mateo County supervisors dedicating $2.879 million toward an internet connectivity program for low-income students or those in rural households.

The supervisors are partnering with a number of school districts, including Ravenswood, to provide subsidized high-speed internet through Comcast or mobile Wi-Fi hot spots through T-Mobile.

“The pandemic exposed what we already knew — that so many in our community do not have access to the internet,” San Mateo County Board of Supervisors President Warren Slocum said in a statement announcing the program. “This project is critical not just for students but also their families.”

The county will also expand the public Wi-Fi networks to support students in Redwood City and Sequoia Union High school districts.

Nonprofits like StreetCode are also stepping up.

In June, they launched the Level Up initiative, a fundraiser to raise $2.5 million to provide 2,500 laptops, internet and free tech education to local students. Since June, they’ve secured 270 laptops and have received support from more than 170 individual donors and companies like Airbnb. 

StreetCode CEO Olatunde Sobomehin.

“It’s a shame that the pandemic forced this because we should have been addressing it beforehand, in my opinion,” StreetCode CEO Olatunde Sobomehin said in an interview earlier this year.

StreetCode has been working in the digital literacy space for years, providing technology and digital literacy classes for free in East Palo Alto.

“We woke up to this reality and we just realized that people didn’t have the tools to basically get the education that they wanted, so we started this campaign,” Sobomehin said.

Digital access not the only barrier to virtual learning

While educators are working hard to secure digital access, the shift to distance learning is still more challenging for lower-income parents who must juggle their time and resources to monitor their children while working or looking for work during the pandemic.

“Actual digital access is not what worries me,” said Amika Guillaume, principal of the East Palo Alto Academy, which enrolls 360 students in grades ninth through 12th.

“Many of our students are in living circumstances where they have to help take care of siblings, they have to work to help pay for the rent. So the demands on their time are very different. So it’s not so much the digital divide that is the challenge. It’s that my resilient, persistent, completely amazing and inspiring, bright students just have a lot to contend with when we say ‘hey, go to school.’”

Like many Bay Area cities, East Palo Alto residents are facing lost income due to unemployment or reduced hours during the coronavirus pandemic.

The unemployment rate was 12.1% in June this year, compared to a yearly average of 2.4% in 2019, according to California’s Employment Development Department. Moreover, the city is home to many undocumented immigrants who are ineligible for federal unemployment support or stimulus checks. And parents who are essential workers have no choice but to go out to work to provide for their families.

Distance learning has turned parents into co-educators more than ever before, as schools are encouraging parents to be more engaged in their children’s education. But not every parent has the bandwidth to do so.

Erika Gonzalez, who works full time at a health center, said she’s stressed figuring out child care for her children while she’s at work.

Her children, 5 and 8, attend school in East Palo Alto. They were enrolled in a summer camp that ended in the first week of August.

At first, her children’s school was going to open for twice a week, with half of the students attending for two days, and the other half attending another two days, and one day dedicated to sanitizing the school.

“I was totally on board with that. Twice a week is better than nothing,” Gonzalez said. That way, her children would have somewhere to go while she works.

Then they announced that they were going fully online for at least the first 10 weeks, leaving her scrambling to figure out child care options. She’s torn between the need for child care and the health risk of in-person learning.

“My kids are going to fall behind in school. That’s my concern. They’re going to fall behind. I don’t know how I’m going to do it. I’m stressing about not being there for them and about the schools not opening,” Gonzalez said. “I just wish there would be some options for us that need extra support.”

Teachers are innovative, dedicated, hopeful about distance learning

Shifting to virtual learning forced teachers to be innovative and find new ways of engaging students. They’re experimenting with a mix of synchronous learning and asynchronous learning. They are checking in with students frequently and following up with any student who does not show up to class.

At the East Palo Alto Academy, teachers performed “virtual hallway sweeps,” checking in individually with each student who did not show up to class. Staff would call the student’s home and walk them through the process of getting connected if needed.

It’s a steep learning curve, but teachers are adapting.

Guillaume, principal of the East Palo Alto Academy, shared one of her favorite metaphors to describe the situation.

“Most of our teachers are veterans — mature, incredibly innovative, incredibly powerful teachers. However, imagine you just had a stroke and you need to learn how to walk again. Your internal heart knows, ‘oh I’m a teacher. I love teaching. I’m so good at it.’ But you have to re-learn everything as if you’re a first year teacher.”

She said most of her teachers already use technology at a high level, but the challenge comes in building culture, community and trust among students, so that they’re motivated to learn.

Virtual Zoom parties, karaoke and back-to-school car parades are just some of the ways teachers are engaging their students. The Aspire East Palo Alto Charter School started its first day on Aug. 10 with a car parade through the parking lot. Teachers set up booths under tents. As cars drove by, students held colorful signs and waved to their teachers.

Despite the circumstances, educators are hopeful. Gina Sudaria, superintendent for the Ravenswood City School District, believes there are opportunities to improve education.

“The silver lining here is we always talk about what we can do different for our children to increase academic achievement. If we were able to flip education and how we deliver education during these times like we did, there’s then a way to make it better for our students,” Sudaria said in a previous interview.

“I don’t know what it looks like. I don’t know the formula, but the fact is we don’t have to stick with the same thing,” she continued. “We have the tenacity and we have people who care. And if you have empathy and tenacity, you can do a lot of work.”