Theresa Harrington / EdSource
Second-graders work on laptop computers at Allendale Elementary in Oakland Unified in 2017.

After Twitter’s CEO heard that Oakland Unified and the city were trying to raise more than $10 million to close the gap between students with computers and internet access and those without, he announced he would donate nearly the entire amount needed.

The “Oakland Undivided” campaign was organized to close the digital divide by supplying a computer and internet access to 25,000 Oakland students and their families. After schools closed March 13 due to the coronavirus, the campaign found that half of Oakland’s 50,000 students needed computers and access. The district distributed more than 18,000 Chromebooks to its students to use at home, but found that 5,000 additional students still needed the devices and thousands more still needed internet access. 

The district and city launched the campaign because officials believe district and charter school students in Oakland will continue to need to participate in distance learning next year and will need to replenish the supply, said Kyla Johnson-Trammell, superintendent of Oakland Unified. And while the district initially planned to provide one device per household, its goal is give each student a device along with stable internet access that will help families connect with community resources.

Jack Dorsey, CEO and founder of Twitter, tweeted the pledge Friday in response to a Thursday tweet by Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf announcing the launch of an “Oakland Undivided” campaign that had already raised $1.8 million toward its $12.5 million goal. The tweet featured a video clip of a student talking about the challenges she and her classmates faced without devices or internet access. 

Dorsey tweeted: “10mm to give EVERY single child in Oakland access to a laptop and internet in their homes, closing the digital divide…funding immediately. Thank you!”

The donation cut short a campaign that was expected to take years to accomplish. It now only has to raise $700,000. 

Johnson-Trammell recently reported that 1,383 students still needed Chromebooks and 3,433 still needed internet hotspots. The money is expected to help pay for these needs, as well as to fund Chromebooks and hotspots for students who attend independently-runcharter schools in the district now and in the future. The district said some Chromebooks are on back order and it doesn’t know when they can be delivered. 

The school year ends May 28, but the district expects to provide summer school through distance learning.

Schaaf and Johnson-Trammell held a virtual press conference to get the word out about the campaign Thursday, which had already garnered support from the nonprofit Oakland Public Education Fund; Salesforce; the Golden State Warriors; Amazon; the Oakland COVID-19 Relief Fund; and other corporations, foundations and individuals.

“What an incredible and incredibly generous gift,” said Johnson-Trammell in a Friday statement. “Jack Dorsey leads one of the most consequential technology firms in the world, so he understands well the need for our young people to have access to a computer and the internet at home. Students open to a limitless world of information at school and at home, and becoming more adept at using technology, is what we all want. We thank Jack Dorsey for joining the effort to make that a reality for all young people in Oakland.”

Closing the digital divide has become a high priority for districts statewide, especially those serving low-income students whose families cannot afford computers and high-speed broadband service. The California Department of Education formed a Closing the Digital Divide Task Force last month to try to help solve the problem, but many districts such as Oakland Unified have also been tackling the issue locally.

The governor’s office said in a news release last month that about one in five 1 in 5 California students, or 1.2 million, did not have access to a computer or broadband internet service at home. An EdSource analysis of 2018 data showed that the disparities were less acute in urban areas than in rural areas.

But Johnson-Trammell said the number of students and families without stable internet access fluctuates based on their ability to pay for the service and that some families who may have been able to afford it a few months or years ago may not be able to pay for it now or in the future because they have lost their jobs and income. 

“We know intuitively we are in a health pandemic causing an economic crisis causing a bigger learning crisis than we were in originally as an urban district,” she said. “These numbers will continue to change as long as we’re in this challenging time.”

Concerns over inequitable access to devices and internet service prompted Oakland Unified and many other districts throughout the state to adopt credit/no credit grading policies during school closures in an effort to not penalize students who had difficulties completing their work through distance learning. The Oakland school board also recently voted to temporarily reduce some of its graduation requirements during the pandemic for the same reasons.

The nonprofit Tech Exchange, which refurbishes computers, has also contributed devices to Oakland students and will distribute the newly funded devices to students in schools run both by the district and by charter operators in the city. 

“This is a truly extraordinary response to our call to action,” said Seth Hubbert, executive director of Tech Exchange. “Jack Dorsey’s generous contribution will close home access gaps for Oakland’s students in a systemic way.”

As schools have worked to educate students through distance learning, they have found that lack of access to devices or the internet has sometimes prevented students from participating in online lessons or other education-related activities. Jessica Ramos, a junior at Skyline High in Oakland Unified, received a computer through the district, but lacked internet service.

Theresa Harrington / EdSource

Jessica Ramos, a Skyline High School junior in Oakland Unified, talks about the challenges of distance learning during a Zoom press conference on May 14, 2020.

“My family did not have the internet, and I could not finish my work, which lowered my grades and I missed some deadlines to finish my scholarship applications,” she said, adding that many of her classmates faced similar challenges.

Comcast eventually provided her family with internet service, but not all families have been able to obtain internet access. Johnson-Trammell said that devices are as critical to students’ success as textbooks, and that internet service should be considered a public utility because it is as vital as electricity and water.

To help students access the internet during the past two months, the district boosted its Wi-Fi network signal so that families could access it from their cars outside of school buildings to upload assignments or download resources, said district spokesman John Sasaki. Some students without Chromebooks have had to complete assignments using smart phones, Johnson-Trammell said.

Theresa Harrington / EdSource

Kyla Johnson-Trammell, superintendent of Oakland Unified, talks about the digital divide during a Zoom press conference on May 14, 2020.

Schaaf said the citywide campaign has also partnered with the nonprofit organization Tipping Point, a San Francisco-based nonprofit that helps fund education and other programs to benefit low-income people in the Bay Area. That group recently released a study that showed that half of area residents couldn’t afford to pay all of their bills at some time during the last year.

Devices and internet access, Schaaf said, will give “families the tools that lead to information that improves their lives,” including where to access free food and other resources. “We all know that closing the digital divide is one of the most impactful things we can do to advance equity,” she said.

The campaign is still accepting tax-deductible monetary donations or donations of computers and hotspots. More information is available at https://www.oaklandedfund.org/digitaldivide.

Editor’s Note: As a special project, EdSource is tracking developments in the Oakland Unified and West Contra Costa Unified School Districts as a way to illustrate some of the challenges facing other urban districts in California. West Contra Costa Unified includes Richmond, El Cerrito and several other East Bay communities.

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