Closing the digital divide will require significant policy overhaul

Since schools closed last spring to slow the spread of the coronavirus, districts and county offices of education throughout California have stepped up and gotten creative to ensure students without access to devices or internet connectivity had what they needed to learn in an online setting. Yet, as the pandemic stretches on and widespread distance learning remains the current standard, local educational agencies are struggling to keep their students in low-income or rural households connected.

In a Dec. 1 webinar hosted by the California Association of School Business Officials, panelists from the California Department of Education and the California Public Utilities Commission outlined several programs that LEAs could take advantage of right now to best support students. However, such solutions are only viable in the short term, they noted. In order to propel students into the 21st century where every child can learn from home in times like these, significant policy changes would need to be made.

“We want to govern the internet as an essential service as we have for a long time with voice service,” said Martha Guzman Aceves, Commissioner of the California Public Utilities Commission, noting that there is no real social safety net for internet as there is with utilities such as water, gas or electricity. “The disparity in how we view this service compared to our other basic utilities is so acute right now. We really want to see investments go to local government that is invested in having all of the citizens served, and not necessarily waiting on the market driven companies to get to this universality.”

Simply providing hotspots and devices to students are emergency solutions that LEAs have been forced to rely upon, panelists said, but even those do not work for every student. Many children don’t live in areas where hotspots are a viable option, as they have nothing to connect to. Additionally, only addressing connectivity among students does not address the larger issue.

In fact, one of the areas in which Guzman Aceves said education officials have led the charge is working to ensure entire households had access to high speed internet. Having a more wholistic approach in serving communities and serving households versus the approach of just serving children is another key element of how the Commission wants to frame policies moving forward, she explained.

“The greatest amount of creativity and, just consistently attempting new approaches until there’s a solution has come from the educational community,” Guzman Aceves said. “I’ve been heartened by the leadership from the schools (in this area), that service to all students means service to everyone.”

State resources currently available to support LEAs and their communities

  • California Teleconnect Fund: The CTF program to provide discounted rates to qualifying K-12 schools, libraries, community colleges, government-owned hospitals, health clinics and community-based organizations. Qualified entities receive a 50 percent discount on eligible advanced telecommunications services through telecommunications carriers participating in the program.
  • California Advanced Services Fund (CASF) – Line Extension Program: This pilot project within the CASF Broadband Infrastructure Grant Account allows an individual household or property owner to apply for an infrastructure grant to offset the costs of connecting a household or property to an existing or proposed facility-based broadband provider.
  • CASF – Adoption Account: The Broadband Adoption Account provides grants to increase publicly available or after-school broadband access and digital inclusion, such as grants for digital literacy training programs and public education to communities with limited broadband adoption. Preference is given to programs and projects in communities with demonstrated low broadband access, including low income communities, senior citizen communities and communities facing socioeconomic barriers to broadband adoption.
  • California Low-Cost Internet Tool: This online tool can help individuals find internet providers in their area offering low-cost service options based on one’s zip code.