Canal Alliance staff member Michael Gomez, second from right, back row, strikes a pose with UP! students in a chemistry class in fall 2019. (Photo courtesy of Canal Alliance)

In the course of five months, California schools had to switch gears to a completely online education, and disparities in internet access and use are being highlighted in socioeconomically and racially segregated places like Marin County.

Some communities that are heavily populated with Latinx people, many of whom are essential workers, live without much access to the internet at all, underscoring the divide  between such communities and more affluent, largely white parts of the county.

Marin is one of the most racially disparate counties in California, according to data from Race Counts, a nonprofit that tracks racial disparities in California. Marin County is 85.3% white, and 16.3% Hispanic or Latino, according to the U.S. Census Bureau in 2019.

The San Rafael Canal area is home to the county’s largest Latinx community. An immigrant support group called the Canal Alliance in San Rafael has been working to break the generational cycle of poverty for immigrants and their families in this area by removing barriers and promoting equity and growth. During the coronavirus pandemic, it is focusing primarily on providing internet access to many of these families.

“COVID-19 has brought what has already existed into the spotlight, and really has shown us how interconnected everybody is,” said Air Gallegos, Canal Alliance director of education and career. “We’re seeing that the health of your neighbors and the education of your neighbors matters. That’s how we build community together.” 

A survey conducted by the Canal Alliance, the city of San Rafael, Marin County and San Rafael City Schools district revealed immense inequities in internet access for those living in the Canal compared to the rest of the county.

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“Fifty-seven percent of the respondents in the Canal said they do not own a computer at home, compared to only 10% of people that live outside of the Canal,” Gallegos said. “How do you do distance learning if you don’t have access to a computer or internet? Furthermore, what if you don’t know how to use a computer?” 

The survey found that 44% of residents in the Canal find it difficult to connect to the internet, compared to only 10% of those living outside of the Canal. 

Without access to the internet, online school is impossible. The Canal Alliance, along with San Rafael City Schools, is working to remedy the situation.

“The other day, a mom called in and just broke down in tears because she couldn’t get her 5-year-old signed onto the computer for distance learning,” Gallegos said. “She finally went over to her neighbors, but they only made it to the last 10 minutes of class. All these parents want is what any parent wants, which is to support their children.”

School districts are trying to meet the needs of each individual family and adapt learning styles to online teaching.

Canal Alliance’s Air Gallegos.

“The districts are working really hard, but education was not set up to work in this fashion,” Gallegos said. “Right now we’re seeing (that) adaptability is best. That means a lot of one-on-one support, and individualizing things for students. It means proactively reaching out, having things in different languages, and other access points for people who might not be literate.” 

The problem of internet access is only one way in which COVID-19 is disproportionately affecting those in the San Rafael Canal — where many residents are essential workers who do not have the luxury of being able to shelter in place. Although 16% of Marin County’s population is Latinx, they currently account for nearly 80% of the county’s coronavirus cases.

“It’s because we’re providing for the rest of Marin to be healthy and be at home,” said Gallegos.

A key overall goal of Canal Alliance is to change the infrastructure of the Canal and provide digital broadband. The first step in giving internet to the Canal was creating a local “mesh” network, but it does not provide access for more than a portion of the Canal community.

“It’s a great first step,” Gallegos said. “Real equity would be providing digital broadband to each house in the Canal.”

In the meantime, the city of San Rafael and the Canal Alliance are working to provide Wi-Fi hot spots, but these are still not a feasible solution for every family.

“We’re trying to get hot spots, but just to purchase a hot spot for a family costs $60-$100 and paying for service for the year is at least $20 a month. That’s a huge investment per family,” Gallegos said.

Along with the absence of hardware, many residents of underprivileged communities lack the digital literacy needed to work the devices, Gallegos noted — another issue to tackle in closing the digital gap.

“We don’t want to just loan out Chromebooks, we want people to have ownership of it,” Gallegos said. “They can own it; they can get used to using it, and then can build their own digital literacy skills.” 

The Canal Alliance and San Rafael City Schools are focusing on teaching digital literacy to kids at the elementary level who may have never used these devices before. 

“A 5-year-old might not know how to click on a Google Hangout link or navigate Google Classroom. so it’s really important to be able to have those supports,” Gallegos said.

Gallegos sees teaching digital literacy as a huge step toward lifting barriers to success faced by Latinx immigrants in the Canal.

“A long-term goal is to really have regular digital literacy within the community so that we’re building community knowledge, and closing that divide in a long term way,” Gallegos said.