Legislators, district administrators outline needs, goals to close the digital divide

Just hours after Gov. Gavin Newsom’s COVID-19 April 20 media briefing overwhelmingly focused on efforts to bridge the digital divide, State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond welcomed legislators and representatives from internet service providers to the first meeting of the newly created Closing the Digital Divide Task Force.

In proclaiming that California must work to “let the internet flow like electricity,” especially during a time of widespread distance learning, Thurmond commended the companies and individuals that have partnered with the state to provide devices and internet access to students in need. “But there is still a tremendous amount of need among our state’s most vulnerable students. We must continue working together to close the digital divide, not just as a band-aid during this public health crisis, but once and for all,” he said.

As he did earlier in the day during Gov. Newsom’s briefing, Thurmond thanked CSBA and other organizations for their help in identifying local educational agencies struggling with the digital divide amid the shift to distance learning. CSBA also continues to develop private partnerships to complement the collaborations outlined by the Governor on Monday that will provide 70,000 laptops, Chromebooks and tablets to students starting this week.

‘A huge challenge’ for many districts

Administrators from two school districts shared some of their challenges with the task force before the rest of the meeting focused on how telecommunications companies are addressing the technology needs of students during the COVID-19 pandemic, reducing barriers to low-income families and planning to expand service to rural communities.

In agriculture-dominant Colusa County, Superintendent Edgar Lampkin said the Williams Unified School District has tried for several years to improve internet access for its students. However, the presence of only one internet provider and a lack of infrastructure have largely stymied these efforts in a district in which 95 percent of students are Hispanic and 91 percent of students are economically disadvantaged. A defunct Sprint communications tower stands tall in the area, Lampkin said, but efforts to retrofit it to support satellite dishes or other technology have been unfruitful.

Monday marked the launch of the 1,400-student district’s distance learning program, but Lampkin said many students resorted to paper packets or did not participate at all. “What this situation represents for us is a huge challenge,” he said. “Many districts in Northern California are facing the same dire situation.”

Task force member Assemblymember Cecilia Aguiar-Curry (D-Winters), who represents Lampkin’s area, said she has heard long-running concerns from schools in Arbuckle. They have been working for two years on the issue and reported students in their community still do not have reliable internet connectivity.

Sen. Mike McGuire (D-Healdsburg) said that internet access should not be a luxury at this point, adding that the “gamesmanship” of telecommunications companies must end to better serve students and their communities. “Rural California has been screaming from the top of our lungs about the digital divide for years,” he said.

The efforts of smaller North Coast companies and government agencies to install infrastructure and offer new internet services have been fought nearly every step of the way, McGuire said. Without internet access points, Chromebooks and WiFi hotspots are rendered unusable.

Many of the questions asked of representatives from AT&T, Charter Communications, Comcast, Cox Communications and Verizon focused on their track record of prioritizing an expansion of internet services in rural and underserved areas. Several legislators expressed doubts that the companies will increase their efforts unless a market expansion is profitable.

Some relief for these underserved areas will be offered by way of the the California Teleconnect Fund  from the California Public Utilities Commission, which is making $25 million available for hotspots and internet service for student homes, with a priority on rural, small and medium-sized districts. Districts will be able to apply to receive 50 percent discounts on the cost of hotspot devices and on monthly recurring service charges until Sept. 30, 2020. The California Department of Education will soon be sending out information on how LEAs can apply.

Connecting communities with programs and devices

While internet infrastructure is available in urban communities such as Inglewood, Assemblymember Autumn Burke (D-Inglewood) said many families aren’t able to afford the service or enough devices to satisfy distance learning needs. Burke said Inglewood USD identified that a staggering 7,500 out of 8,200 its students need reliable devices.

Bernadette Lucas, the district’s chief academic officer, thanked Charter Spectrum and the city for teaming up to provide 90 days of free internet access to students without it, but wondered aloud what will happen when those three months expire. Further, Lucas said the district is not only facing a hardware gap for its student but an instructional quality divide, as teachers are largely lacking the professional development and training to successfully transition to virtual instruction.

As telecommunications representatives addressed questions, Burke said she learned about useful programs for schools and families that she was not aware of. She followed up by sharing concerns about whether companies are reaching out and marketing these programs at a level that will connect with low-income communities such as hers in Inglewood.

Moving forward, a CDE press release noted that Thurmond and task force members will continue to meet and use the information and feedback gathered to create a formal plan for closing the digital divide, including timelines, budgetary considerations and necessary legislative action steps.

The other legislators on the task force are co-chair Sen. Connie Leyva (D-Chino), Assemblymember Eduardo Garcia (D-Coachella), Assemblymember Miguel Santiago (D-Los Angeles) and Assemblymember Jim Wood (D-Santa Rosa).

A video archive of Monday’s hearing can be found on the CDE’s Facebook page.