Webinar highlights CSBA’s efforts on digital divide, shares district perspectives

With school districts and county offices of education now well into widespread distance learning across California — and acknowledging that at least some form of it will continue next school year — CSBA’s latest COVID-19 webinar explored how the association is playing a role in bridging the digital divide and how districts are addressing access challenges on the ground. At a time of school closures, this divide exacerbates opportunity and achievement gaps, slows academic progress and prevents many students from receiving critical socioemotional support.

“In a COVID-19 world, no internet means no school,” said panelist and board member Karen Rosenkilde-Bayne of Woodland Joint Unified School District.

The webinar was framed by red flags borne out in the results from CSBA’s recent survey of more than a quarter of the state’s local educational agencies. Chiefly, 33 percent of LEAs reported that “less than half” or “a small minority/none” of their students have broadband home internet access or similar. “That’s an alarming rate,” CSBA Chief Information Officer Troy Flint said. “And this is not just something that we’re dealing with for two months. Distance learning is going to bleed over into the next school year.”

Among other key survey findings:

  • Fifty percent of respondents reported that “less than half” or “a small minority/none” of their students have access to multiple internet-capable devices at home — a major issue in households with multiple children undertaking distance learning or where parents also study or work from home.
  • Just under one‐fifth (19 percent) of respondents described cell phone service in their community as “poor or nonexistent.”

Using member survey data to highlight the digital divide as a civil rights issue, CSBA has amplified its outreach and advocacy over the last several months. CSBA continues to work with the state and other public and private sector partners to increase access to infrastructure, hardware, training and professional development that helps bridge the digital divide, close opportunity and achievement gaps and facilitate distance learning for schools struggling to connect with students.

“We do believe that every student should have access to the technology and instruction that allows them to be successful in school and in life,” said David DeLuz, Director of Strategic Initiatives and Development for CSBA.

‘Far more complex than getting a student a laptop’

State partnerships with technology companies and internet service providers have made some progress in providing students with devices and internet, but infrastructure is the major concern for districts with a rural footprint. “Unfortunately, the issue is far more complex than getting a student a laptop,” Woodland board member Karen Rosenkilde-Bayne said. “This is especially true in rural areas.”

All of Woodland Joint USD’s roughly 10,000 students already have a district-issued Chromebook thanks to a plan launched seven years ago, Rosenkilde-Bayne said, and students eligible for free and reduced-price meals also receive a hot spot.

But because hot spots don’t work without a network to tap into, she said the state and federal government must incentivize and promote the building out of internet fiber optic lines and towers into communities that are less profitable for companies. “It’s the hardest lift to address and requires the most comprehensive effort to resolve on the state level,” CSBA’s Flint agreed.

To address the rural infrastructure challenge receiving high-profile attention at the state level, groups such as the nonprofit California Emerging Technology Fund are doubling down on their calls for progress. “We are focused on unserved and underserved communities and want to join CSBA in getting solutions almost immediately,” said President and CEO Sunne McPeak.

The digital divide has been thrust into the spotlight by a number of conditions that no technology company or legislator could have anticipated, McPeak said, referring to a state system needing to simultaneously support 6.2 million K-12 students and 300,000 teachers, 4 million higher education students and millions of adults working from home.

Twenty years into a century in which digital equity is being heralded as a right, McPeak said it’s past time for the state to make promised inroads. The nonprofit is encouraging the California Public Utilities Commission to use an existing $303 million from the California Advanced Services Fund to prioritize large-scale development projects to reach unserved households. Considering the state’s woeful budget projections, McPeak emphasized that this money falls outside the general fund.

Differing access across district communities

With 28,000 students across 52 school sites serving 355 square miles, Lodi USD’s distance learning efforts offer yet another example that one size doesn’t fit all, said board member George Neely. Some families live in urban areas and subscribe to high-speed internet access, others live in those same areas but can’t afford the product and still others live in outlying or rural areas with unreliable or nonexistent service. These disparities are also impacted by the 23 languages spoken by the district’s students.

“What we’re doing is using the schools to identify the problems and then the district to solve those problems,” Neely said. Some of those solutions include offering hot spots to students, communicating provider deals to families in several languages, increasing the range of school WiFi and limiting file sizes so a high-speed connection isn’t required to download course materials.

CSBA’s DeLuz said that the no-cost or low-cost trials offered by internet service providers, while receiving a lot of attention, have been available to families long before COVID-19. Further, the eligibility requirements leave many families in income gaps, where they earn too much to receive assistance but don’t make enough to buy it on their own. “The stark reality is that these efforts aren’t enough,” DeLuz said.

The unfamiliarity of widespread and months-long distance learning for those who can access it also presents a steep learning curve for students and staff, said Neely. Lodi USD has already committed to dedicating a large portion of its three days of professional development before the start of the school year to distance learning strategies and tutorials.

In the meantime, however, Neely said students can’t wait for perfection. “Don’t work to make everything perfect. Implement now, and then you adjust as you go,” he advised.