Today in California, if a child does not have access to the internet, the schoolhouse doors are closed.
For nearly two decades now, policymakers have examined and talked about the “digital divide,” the shorthand term for the disparities in internet access that has contributed to many being excluded from the benefits of the Information Age. But it has taken the COVID-19 pandemic to bring home the seriousness and urgency of the problem.
As schools have switched to distance learning and online instruction, millions of children are being left behind. State education officials estimate that one in five California students – about 1.2 million children – lack either broadband access or a computer, making it nearly impossible to participate in online classes.
The data show that those most likely to be shut out are Black and brown students.
State law requires that schools have a plan to ensure access to devices and connectivity for all students as part of their distance-learning programs. Yet the need is great and funding scarce. The Department of Education’s Digital Divide Task Force, while working to secure greater public funding, has appealed to community-based groups, individuals and corporations to mobilize to address this critical need.
A program launched in South Los Angeles in December demonstrates what a mobilized community can achieve.
SoLa I Can, the non-profit affiliate to the community housing group SoLa Impact, launched a program it calls “1000×1000.” Among those supporting the program are AT&T, Los Angeles Rams players and private philanthropists including the James Lee Sorenson Family Foundation. The organization seeks to provide free internet connectivity to 1,000 South Los Angeles families for up to 1,000 days.
Among the multiple community-based programs sprouting up designed to meet the needs of South L.A., Rams team captain Andrew Whitworth said the 1000×1000 program stands out as one designed to address “the immediate needs of L.A.’s diverse community.”
School officials say students in South L.A. are three times less likely than their peers to keep up with their school curriculum as a result of either poor connectivity or no internet access.
While the need for students to connect with their teachers and classes is of paramount concern, lack of internet connectivity disadvantages families in myriad ways. Internet access today is the pathway for employment, accessing public benefits, banking, connecting with friends and family – even the ability to see a doctor.
The 1000×1000 program is more than 80% toward meeting its goal and is seeking additional philanthropic sponsors.
With the arrival of effective vaccines, of course, there is hope that schoolhouse doors will soon be physically reopened, if not in this academic year, then in the fall. One lesson that must be taken from the lost learning during these past months is that the challenges created by disparate access to the internet will long outlast the pandemic.
The communications industry has been investing heavily in expanding broadband access. AT&T, for example, invested more than $8.7 billion from 2017 through 2019 in California alone. Today in this state, 98.3 percent of households have access to internet speeds that meet the FCC’s minimum definition of high-speed connectivity.
While there remain rural areas and tribal lands without broadband access, what we are seeing in communities such as South L.A. is a troubling gap between the availability of the technology and its adoption. While 98.3 of California households have the availability of high-speed internet, only 64.5 percent subscribe.
Internet service providers have stepped up with inexpensive internet plans for low-income families, including the Access from AT&T program, which provides high-speed internet service for $10 per month to low-income households that qualify for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program or Supplemental Social Security.
Still, the digital equity gap persists – a gap that further separates haves from have nots, stifling opportunities for educational advancement and economic mobility. The pandemic has shone a bright, sobering light on the magnitude of the problem.
During these unprecedented times, it is essential to find creative and innovative ways to ensure that our California students in need have access to online resources, so they are not left behind as they study and learn at home. It will take a collaborative effort between educators, elected officials and community leaders to address digital inclusion and critical issues across the state, especially in rural and underserved communities. Just as has SoLa Impact, it’s time for public agencies and private entities to step up and confront this crisis in connectivity.