School boards in action: The digital divide

CSBA knows the challenges our students and school communities are facing and the hard work school boards across the state are putting in to keep students learning and support the goal of reopening schools safely. While calls for reopening schools in districts that have not been able to do so echo throughout the state, trustees must respond with a firm on eye on the safety of students and staff, communicating the resources and conditions needed to reopen safely.

While many schools have been shut down for almost a year — learning didn’t stop. Districts across the state have implemented innovative solutions to address a host of challenges including lack of technology and devices for students, addressing academic and social-emotional needs, planning for reopening schools, and implementing safety plans in districts that have opened — just to name a few. All of this has happened while trustees and other school personnel are also dealing with the life-changing elements of a global pandemic. CSBA is proud of the work of California’s district and county board trustees and will highlight just a few of the ways districts have addressed the many challenges of the past year in a series of blog posts.

The digital divide

The digital divide has plagued schools for years and has been a point of advocacy for CSBA and its members. Any discussion of how learning continued after schools shut down due to the pandemic in March 2020, must begin with access.

As education leaders across the state planned for and ramped up the delivery of distance learning lessons, many faced a fundamental and daunting barrier: the number of students who lack access to computers or other mobile devices and internet at home. Local educational agencies immediately began laptop distribution plans after determining need through surveys. Many designated specific times for different groups to pick up devices and hotspots, others distributed devices at school meal pick-up sites.

Those that had already implemented a 1:1 device ratio were most ready to tackle the other challenges of distance learning. ABC Unified School District in Cerritos just this year completed a five-year initiative called the Technology Integration Program, which provided devices for all of the 20,000-plus students in the district, along with training for teachers and students, and infrastructure and technical support. Part of TIP is integrating on-site and online curriculum in the district and the IT team is included in textbook adoption decisions to ensure the curriculum can be supported and facilitated through the Google Classroom platform. Superintendent Mary Sieu emphasized how this five-year initiative helped the transition to distance learning go much more smoothly. “The Online Learning at Home program can be customized to what students need right now,” Sieu said. “The students and families still have access to the very programs that they have had while they have been in school.”

In rural areas, it can be much harder to not only reach students but to provide them with the resources they need to meaningfully engage in distance learning. However, these obstacles are not stopping the state’s less-populated districts from making sure their students are still learning. Earlimart Elementary School District, located north of Bakersfield in Tulare County, has about 1,600 students with nearly 94 percent qualifying for free and reduced-price lunch. The district has been working to close the digital divide for years and had already achieved a 1:1 ratio for devices. However, not all families had an internet connection, either because a signal did not reach their home or due to affordability. The district purchased two antennas that were installed at schools on either end of town to extend the cell signal to up to 800 families. Hotspots were purchased with differing ranges, one within 1 mile and the other within 7 miles. District-issued devices connect to a filtered internet signal automatically. The project was paid for with Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act funds.

Further north, Patterson Joint USD in Stanislaus County was looking to provide an innovative solution to connect families in need in the district of about 6,000 students. A technology initiative over the last five years provided every student with a device, and hotspots were provided to those in need when schools closed last March. While these measures provided a temporary fix to connectivity barriers that many Patterson families faced at the time of the closure, data limitations and the lack of proper firewall security led the district to partner with Motorola Solutions to provide private broadband towers to provide free, reliable and secure internet access to all Patterson students.

Even in the tech-center of the country, internet access is not a given. In San Jose’s East Side Union High School District, an innovative project to provide widespread internet access is underway, but only partially completed. The Community Wireless Project, a partnership between the city of San Jose and East Side Union HSD, has been a centerpiece of the mayor’s plan to help with digital inclusion in San Jose. The project is building one of the nation’s first school district-funded municipal WiFi infrastructures, bringing free broadband access to thousands of district families and tens of thousands of residents in East Side.