(Photo via Headway/Unsplash)

Since the start of the COVID-19 shelter-in-place orders, the city of San Jose has connected about 100,000 residents to the internet, city leaders said Tuesday.

“San Jose is at the forefront of closing the digital divide and we are not going to stop until every child who is trying to learn will be able to access broadband from a safe and convenient location,” Vice Mayor Chappie Jones said.

About 28 percent of San Jose residents do not have broadband at home — primarily Black and Latino households, according to a 2017 report by the city.

That statistic is more staggering for low-income families in the city, of which 55 percent do not have access to Wi-Fi at home, according to a 2016 study by the city.

“The digital divide was exacerbating the great inequities in our society — racial and economic and was determining who of our children had the opportunities for education and subsequent economic advancement,” Mayor Sam Liccardo said. “In the next 24 months … we hope to get 300,000 more residents connected.”

Through partnerships with the Eastside Union High School District, Santa Clara County and private entities like AT&T, the city has been able to significantly ramp up efforts to bridge the divide exacerbated by COVID-19.

“During the first two weeks of school, many districts learned that they had an unmet connectivity need that was greater than they originally thought,” City Librarian Jill Bourne said.

In the Alum Rock Union School District, 36 percent of low-income students did not have access to the internet and in the Eastside Union High School District, it is over 24 percent.

Since lockdown orders started in March, the city installed public Wi-Fi in neighborhoods near James Lick, Overfelt and Yerba Buena (still under construction) high schools and distributed 12,800 hotspots to students with 3,000 more on the way.

“What’s wonderful about [hotspots] … is that they serve the entire household so you have siblings or multiple students in one household can use the device,” Bourne said.

San Jose libraries with express checkout were also given 3,000 hotspots for residents to rent for a 90-day period, which includes access to digital literacy courses and programs.

But the effort to close the digital divide in San Jose started nearly six years ago when Chris Funk, Eastside Union High School District Superintendent, introduced the state’s first ed-tech bond.

“It was quite visionary at the time, we had never heard of a tech bond,” Councilmember Magdalena Carrasco said. “It was innovative, creative and much needed especially on the east side of San Jose.”

Voters approved the bond, allowing for a revenue stream of $116 million over 28 years that has been used to free public broadband infrastructure and a myriad of other programs to increase internet connectivity.

“The voters had the faith in our students, they had so much faith that they were willing to tax themselves … and make sure our students were well-equipped to meet the needs and demands of the 21st century,” Carrasco said.

Carrasco, who sat on the Eastside Union school board at the time of the tech-ed bond, said the measures taken now are “basic preventative programs”, but much more needs to be done for East San Jose and low-income students.

“The education divide is getting deeper by the day,” Carrasco said. “It is time to make sure we grow our own talent in our own backyard … that East San Jose students are interwoven into the wealth the Silicon Valley is creating … the students and talent are right here. We just need to make sure that we prepare them and give them the tools that they need.”

Councilmember Pam Foley, who was also a former school board member but for the San Jose Unified School District, said that closing the digital divide is important, but no match to getting students back in the classroom.

“This is not the end,” Foley said. “While [digital access] will help, it’s not a perfect situation. We all learn differently.”

The next wave of broadband infrastructure will occur near Oak Grove, Independence and Andrew Hill High Schools. After its completion, construction will take place in the Silver Creek and Mount Pleasant High School areas.

To learn more about digital access and literacy services offered by the city, people can visit sjpl.org/sjaccess. Residents who need connection or a hotspot can call (408) 716-3811.