Nearly two months into the school year, hundreds of thousands of California students are still without internet access at home needed to connect to teachers and peers during distance learning.

California school districts are required to ensure that students have access to computers and the internet from home if they are participating in online distance learning. But due to global backorders on computing devices and a lack of broadband infrastructure in remote parts of the state, many students are still without the materials they are entitled to this school year.

“Remote learning continues to be out of reach for kids nationwide who lack a reliable internet connection,” Assemblyman Patrick O’Donnell, D-Long Beach, said during a state Education Committee hearing on Wednesday. “We need to identify an ongoing (funding) source to support your students.”

The digital divide

At the hearing, California state education leaders, lawmakers and teachers shared progress and stubborn barriers to closing the gap between students who have access to computers and the internet at home and those who do not, known as the digital divide.

It’s unclear exactly how many students are going without the tools they need to connect with their teachers every day during distance learning. Although the California Department of Education has worked with groups like the Small School Districts’ Association to conduct statewide surveys about internet access during the pandemic, the department does not regularly collect information regarding students’ home internet connections.

That’s led to different estimates on what’s needed to close the digital divide. California State Board of Education President Linda Darling-Hammond said at least 300,000 students remain unconnected during distance learning — a significant improvement from estimates in June when around 700,000 laptops and 320,000 hot spots were needed. But state education officials told EdSource that far fewer school districts responded to recent surveys, which may be why the number is lower.

California State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond shared a much higher estimate on Wednesday, saying up to 1 million students could be lacking either computers or internet access needed to participate in distance learning.

What is clear is that while most California households (97%) have access to broadband at speeds high enough for some video calls, according to a brief from the Legislative Analyst’s Office, it’s often still not enough when multiple kids and adults are all using the network. And many low-income families in urban areas and many rural regions still are completely unconnected. At least 263,000 households without internet access are located in urban areas and 227,000 unconnected households are in rural areas, the LAO report says.

Unreliable internet access

Nearly 42% of California families said that unreliable internet access was a challenge for them during distance learning, and 29% said lack of devices were hindering their learning experience, according to a recent poll by EdSource and FM3 Research.

The current effort to close the digital divide in California has involved a patchwork of solutions. This summer, the state Legislature authorized nearly $5.3 billion in funds for school districts that could be used for purchasing technology for distance learning. Meanwhile, the California Department of Education has secured agreements with technology providers to make up to 1 million iPads and 500,000 other devices available during a global shortage of Chromebooks and Wi-Fi hot spots.

The task force also worked with telecommunications companies to remove some purchasing provisions, such as requiring a customer’s Social Security number, and offer free or low-cost programs to families who qualify for free or reduced-price school meals.

But there have also been major roadblocks to these efforts. Two bills aiming to fund high-speed internet programs in California failed to pass the Legislature this session. And many families report being steered by sales representatives to buy more expensive internet plans and other issues when accessing low-income internet offers.

“Promises to remedy the situation in two months, or two years, are not reasonable,” said Angela Stegall, president of the Marysville Unified Teachers Association in Yuba County. “I have students who could win the lottery today and still not get internet tomorrow because it does not exist where they live.”

School districts are legally responsible for ensuring their students have the devices and connectivity they need to participate in class. In California, the Williams Act requires that all students receive equal access to instructional materials, quality teachers and safe schools.

Instructional materials

In September, the state’s legal definition of instructional materials was expanded to include computers and internet connectivity since that is the primary way the majority of California students are able to attend school during the pandemic. Now, school districts must assess their materials and make that information public, including access to devices and connectivity for students, and families can submit complaints if they are not given equal access to those materials.

“A student in any California school should be given the same basic equipment, just like every student should be able to walk into a school and get a textbook,” said Michael Romero, Local District South superintendent for Los Angeles Unified.

In districts like Alpaugh Unified, where all students have been given Chromebooks and devices, some students still often have to go to the school parking lot to do school work because they can’t connect to the internet from home, Darling-Hammond said.

“Ultimately federal regulation and investment, along with continued efforts, will be needed to solve the problem,” she said.

Now that funding and devices are available for school districts, state officials are seeking new ideas for how to resolve remaining challenges with access, like slow and spotty service, or building infrastructure where it doesn’t yet exist. The California Department of Education is planning to ask companies and other organizations for their input through competition for innovative ideas on how to close the digital divide in California beyond hotspots.

“We want to ask California companies and other innovators to think through solutions to a problem that has perplexed us for far too long,” Thurmond said. “We need these tools to make sure our teachers are connected to our kids.”

Story originally published by EdSource.