When the state closed down schools due to the COVID-19 pandemic in March, an oft-ignored inequity in the everyday lives of Californians became glaringly obvious: A significant portion of the state’s population still lacks reliable broadband access.
When families without reliable internet have children who can no longer go to a physical school, those students’ chances of educational success decrease dramatically.
“In the Coachella Valley, we met with the superintendents of all three school districts early on in this pandemic, and the distance-learning issue was one of their top challenges,” said Assemblymember Eduardo Garcia, who represents much of the eastern Coachella Valley, and serves on State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond’s newly formed Closing the Digital Divide Task Force. “It wasn’t from the standpoint of the teacher not being with the students; it was that they couldn’t even connect with some of the families, because they don’t have the services. They can’t afford it, or the technology and infrastructure just isn’t available.
“These are the families and the students who can least afford for their children not to be engaged, (which could) ultimately widen the achievement gap. Someone called this a civil rights issue—because without (broadband), you are severely disadvantaged.”
Steve Blum is the president of Tellus Venture Associates, a California management and business-development consulting company for the digital media and telecommunications industries; he specializes in developing new community-broadband systems.
“You’ve got two kinds of problems: long term and short term,” Blum said. “The long-term problem is lack of infrastructure, and that’s not something you can fix this week or this month, probably not even this year. As soon as the schools closed, and the students were told that they’ve got to start doing their work online, this problem just blossomed: It went from just being an annoyance to being a total lack of ability to participate in the 21st century—and now, it’s an immediate problem.”
This problem is not being experienced equally across the Coachella Valley’s three school districts. Scott Bailey, superintendent of the Desert Sands Unified School District—which includes schools in Indio, La Quinta, Palm Desert, Indian Wells, Bermuda Dunes and parts of Rancho Mirage and Coachella—points proudly to the district’s ability to guarantee reliable broadband connectivity to every student household, often via the district’s own broadband network. Built at the cost of $590,000 for infrastructure development and hotspot devices, with an ongoing cost of $1,300 per month, this project became a U.S. Government General Accountability Office model example of a school “district that defied the odds,” as Bailey put it. To make reliable broadband a given for the district’s 28,000 students, spread over 752 square miles, the district found a way to acquire broadband spectrum-usage permission from the Federal Communications Commission.
“My assistant superintendent, Dr. Kelly May-Vollmar, deserves a lot of credit for what’s happened,” Bailey said. “We were talking one day about how we’d never be able to get broadband, and there was no way we could get access to spectrum. How do you even start there? Do you call Sprint and ask for some? That’s not going to happen. So, she said, ‘Why not just call the FCC?’ Long story short, that’s exactly what happened. She was brave and called the FCC to determine how you could acquire it. … Now, we can honestly say that every student in our district should have adequate broadband connectivity, whether on their own or through (our network). We have devices coupled with connectivity to provide an equitable learning and teaching model.”
The reality is less optimistic for the Coachella Valley Unified School District, which includes the schools in much of Coachella, a portion of Indio, Thermal, Mecca and Salton City. Despite the recent distribution by the district of mobile-hotspot devices to roughly 3,000 student households, there are still several thousand more that have no reliable broadband connectivity. Those 3,000 hotspots were made possible because of an alliance formed by the city of Coachella and the school district.
“The city of Coachella did not donate any hotspots,” said CVUSD Superintendent Dr. Maria Gandera. “CVUSD bought them, but the city got a better deal (from Verizon Wireless) than we did, and they were kind enough to let us purchase at their price—and I can tell you that they are being used. The hotspots are being loaned out to the families, and the district is picking up the cost of the service charges through Verizon Wireless.
“Did they prove useful, and will they continue to prove useful? Absolutely. We’re continuing with summer school, and even students who are not doing summer school are still getting access to some district grade-level challenges and contests, (along with) other fun activities for the students to do that will make them think that they’re not doing (school) work—but they are,” Gandera said with a laugh. “I can tell you that over 1.1 million websites were visited by those students, (and) over 24,700 educational apps were downloaded. They’ve accessed more than 35 terabytes of data using our hotspots as of the first week of June.”
But Gandera has not forgotten about the thousands of students remaining, in her overall student body of more than 18,000, who don’t have one of those hotspots—or any other reliable internet access.
“We are trying to find ways to get more hotspots and more devices (for) our students,” she said. “We estimate that about 40 percent of the households in our district did not have connectivity. We could probably use double the amount (of hotspots)—and we still might have some issues with connecting. I can tell you that we’re continuing to have conversations with different providers, not only about (additional) hotspots, but also looking for a long-term solution for our valley.”
At the north and western end of the valley, the Palm Springs Unified School District—which includes schools in Palm Springs, Palm Desert, Desert Hot Springs, Cathedral City, Rancho Mirage, Thousand Palms and Sky Valley—is also struggling to cope with the needs of at least 2,000 student households that are currently without reliable connectivity or personal digital devices.
“I think that we’ve been fortunate in that, some four years ago, before I started (in this position with PSUSD), the district and the Board of Education took on the mission of having a 1-to-1 program,” said PSUSD Superintendent Dr. Sandra Lyon. “They had been very diligently ensuring that students in grades 3-12 had access to devices. Also, they were making sure that our students who didn’t have internet had an ability to get a hotspot from us that we pay for.
“We give them a Chromebook and a hotspot. Normally, students would bring them to and from school on a daily basis, and our younger students wouldn’t have access. But throughout this coronavirus time, we’ve tried to get devices into the homes of our families with young children who don’t have an older child (as well). So we’ve been running these ‘tech depots’ regularly, and giving out new hotspots if hotspots aren’t working, and taking back nonworking Chromebooks and issuing new ones. Right now, we have over 20,000 devices out there.
“There are still a handful of our students for whom the hotspots aren’t helpful, because they’re in a place that doesn’t have a tower or other internet access. So, again, it’s been a challenge—but overall, we’re in a good position.”
Online summer-school sessions are under way in all three valley school districts, as local educators make sure graduating students have their necessary course requirements completed, and support students who may have fallen behind during the school shutdowns. According to Dr. Lyon, in PSUSD schools, “We are providing access for all students online using some of our LCAP dollars and COVID-19-related funding.”
According to the California Department of Education website, the LCAP is a tool the state developed in 2013 “for local educational agencies to set goals, plan actions, and leverage resources to meet those goals to improve student outcomes.”
“This is not something that we typically would do, but we really (wanted) to try to address some of the learning gaps happening for some of our students right now,” Lyon said. “If you go to our website, it will tell you exactly how to access math and English for our elementary and middle school students. It’s (lessons and activities) that they haven’t done before, because we wanted to make sure that we were giving new opportunities. Also, there are live teacher hours that accompany them as well. The teachers are there to tutor kids through the activities and to help if they’re struggling with any of the concepts. As for high school students, we’re primarily working with kids who need the summer credits to graduate, and credit retrieval to keep students on track for graduation.”
However, that still leaves out the 5 percent of PSUSD students who have questionable ability to access the distance-learning strategies and programs.
“We’ve also been giving out paper (lesson) packets and other materials to the parents of students who come in and pick them up,” Lyon said. “I do think that one of the things we’re finding is that some of our students who aren’t necessarily able to get online with us, they’re doing other things to stay in communication. Once the COVID-19 (impact) is better understood, we’ll know better how we’re going to bring kids back (to schools in the fall). Any of the students that we determine are further behind, we’ll work to get them back on campus.”
A recent survey of 4,300 parents running households of PSUSD students shows that 28 percent plan on their children taking part in a 100 percent distance-learning strategy when fall classes return.
“I think a lot of people who have multiple generations living at home,” Lyon said, “are still unsure and fear the older family members becoming ill.”
But for those student households across our valley that remain without reliable broadband access, the problem won’t be solved before the ’20-’21 school year starts.
“We need people to get these rural areas wired,” Lyon said. “The reality is that this is the world we’re living in, and the more that our homes and our neighborhood businesses are wired and have strong (broadband) access, then the better off our kids will be as far as being competitive in the work world. It’s so important.”
Expensive infrastructure investments will be needed to truly solve the problem.
“The federal government has to step up first—and California supplements the federal money,” said Blum, of Tellus Venture Associates. “There are bills in the U.S. Congress to change these funding requirements, but none of them seem to be going anywhere, so I’m not getting my hopes up.”
Assemblymember Garcia said the state has been distributing about $300 million in funding to locales in desperate need of reliable broadband service through the California Advanced Services Fund, which was established by the Internet for All Now Act of 2017.
“My understanding is that we’ve already seen about $533 million worth of (funding being) requested,” Garcia said. “So, there’s definitely the need for this money to get pushed out. … What I’m discouraged about the most is that very few applications came from our District 56 area—even after making a really assertive effort to get folks in our cities and school districts looking at the program. So we’ve got to do a better job. We held workshops; we had the Public Utilities Commission come down to meet with folks about the challenges in our region. But I don’t believe that we had more than one application from our area or the Imperial Valley.”
Blum said school districts need to do a better job of long-term planning.
“Even if they came up with a COVID-19 vaccine tomorrow, and got everybody vaccinated by the weekend, this broadband problem is not going to go away,” he said. “It’s only going to become more and more important to have broadband access. … The alternative is to sit and wait and hope that somebody like Charter or AT&T or Comcast is going to show up eventually and fix your problems. That could be a long, long wait.”
Garcia said the pandemic has emphasized the seriousness of the broadband-access problem.
“We’re not only talking about the student needs, but we’re talking about mom and dad having to work from home, or the small-business owner who has to change their model of how they deliver a service or a product,” Garcia said. “Internet connectivity is no longer a luxury or an amenity. It’s a necessity for achieving not just economic opportunities, but we’re clearly seeing uses now in telehealth services, public-safety communications and smart agricultural technologies. So our challenge as this Closing the Digital Divide Task Force moves forward is not just to address the needs of our students, but the overall need to expand our infrastructure. This crisis is presenting an opportunity.”