California moves to close digital divide as schools shift online

April 16, 2020

A student works on a laptop while at home learning remotely during the COVID-19 pandemic.

California students who lack the resources necessary to participate in computer-based distance learning during the coronavirus pandemic are at the heart of a new task force announced Thursday by the California Department of Education.

The divide between students who have internet access and computer devices at home and those who don’t has never been more apparent as schools rush to implement distance learning after state officials closed campuses for the remainder of the school year.

“Let’s face it, there’s been a digital divide in California for decades,” California State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond told EdSource. “We are playing catch-up. And we are working fast.”

About 20 percent of all California students, nearly 1.2 million, can’t access the internet at home, according to Linda Darling-Hammond, president of the State Board of Education.

The task force will help facilitate donations, such as a recent gift from Google to provide 100,000 Wi-Fi hotspots and 4,000 Chromebooks, as well as future corporate and individual donations the state has been calling for.

The group also plans to hold a public hearing where “internet service providers may be called upon to testify on their efforts to improve internet access during the pandemic,” according to a press release from the California Department of Education.

Over the last three weeks, state education officials have been surveying districts to determine where students are in need of devices and internet connectivity at home. On April 7, Thurmond said that there was an immediate need for 150,000 laptop devices.

Meanwhile, many districts, such as Los Angeles Unified and San Francisco Unified, are using their own emergency funds to provide students with laptops and internet hotspots at home.

But many low-income districts have struggled to pull together enough resources to get all students the devices and materials they need to transition to distance learning, leaving some students behind as their peers move forward with online school.

“One vital step to ensuring equity is by closing the digital divide, which has become that much more evident and urgent as distance learning is now the new reality for millions of school children during the current COVID-19 crisis,” said state Sen. Connie M. Leyva, D-Chino, co-chair of the task force along with Thurmond.

To pay for the new devices and other needs, the California Department of Education and the Californians Dedicated to Education Foundation, a private nonprofit partner of the department, also announced a new California Bridging the Digital Divide Fund, which is requesting donations from individuals and corporations.

The Department of Education is still selecting and adding members to the task force, according to Kindra Britt, spokesperson for the Department of Education. One of the first items on the task force’s agenda is to hold the public hearing and ask for what students need right now, she said.

“COVID-19 is a public health crisis in California and all around the world,” Thurmond said on Thursday. “But it’s also revealed other crises like the technology gap that has persisted for too long, leading to opportunity and achievement gaps for California’s students.”

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