No Home Wi-Fi, No Virtual Classroom: How Low-Income Students Lose Out During a Pandemic

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Nidya Baez, the assistant principal at Fremont High School in East Oakland. A significant number of students at her school lack the reliable internet connections they need to participate in online learning opportunities. (Courtesy of Baez's students)

One day a week, Ileana Sales' house becomes a mini school. The Fremont High School senior and her two sisters fire up their Chromebooks, connect to the internet, and then, despite social distancing restrictions, invite their cousins over.

"They don't have internet, and they live in a place with no signal. So my dad told them if they wanted, they could come over and do their work at our house," Sales said.

The older cousin, she said, attends Fremont High with her and wants to stay on track to graduate; the younger cousin wants to make sure he graduates on time from middle school.

"The first three weeks of the shelter in place, we didn't have to do anything, but after spring break, we heard from our teachers that we had to do school work, so we called our cousins to let them know," Sales said.

At that point, Sales' youngest cousin, who is 12, moved in with the family for two weeks to try and get her work done.

"Now they come over once a week to download assignments and then head home," Sales said.

Sales' cousins are far from unique. Across California, some 1.2 million students lack a reliable internet connection, according to Linda Darling-Hammond, president of the State Board of Education. A digital connection for students has become increasingly essential during the coronavirus pandemic, with almost all schools operating exclusively online.

In light of that, State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond is co-chairing a fact-finding session Monday to tackle the vast digital divide among students across the state that now, more than ever, threatens to widen the achievement gap. Thurmond and state Sen. Connie Leyva, D-Chino, who chairs the Senate Education Committee, are asking the heads of the state's major internet providers to explain what they are doing to help increase digital access.

In a tweet, the California Department of Education named the companies it intends to hear from.

Meanwhile, Gov. Gavin Newsom announced Monday that the California Public Utilities Commission would make $30 million available to school districts to help students get internet access and devices they need to stay connected with their schools. Later this week, the CPUC is scheduled to hold a virtual workshop on expanding broadband access in unserved areas of the state. Lack of high-quality broadband access is also sparking interest in a new bill — SB 1130 — introduced by state Sen. Lena Gonzalez, D-Long Beach, in February, which seeks to help close the digital divide by updating the state's broadband infrastructure program.

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Nidya Baez, Fremont High School's assistant principal, said she was able to survey about 80% of the school's nearly 800 students and found that 335 of them lacked computers at home, while 177 had no internet service. She said some families who don't speak English fluently or don't have credit cards are having difficulty signing up for the free internet services that some providers are temporarily offering.

"I feel like a failure," Baez said. "It's incredibly frustrating to not be able to give our families a clear-cut response with, 'Here's how you can do this.' And I think it's incredibly frustrating to see that when our students are trying not to fail."

As reported by EdSource, school districts in some parts of California are attempting to jump-start their own solutions.

Anthony Davis, the chief technology officer for the Kern County Office of the Superintendent of Schools, told EdSource that his county has installed Wi-Fi hot spots at over 180 community sites, including schools, so students or their families can drive there to download online materials.

In Oakland, Baez longs for a similar initiative that can offer uniform access for all students in the district.

"We have families that span different schools. So perhaps at one school they're getting a lot of support because that school has some kind of program where they are giving out devices or had access to devices like hot spots," said Baez, noting that Fremont High doesn't have anywhere near the resources necessary to meet that digital demand. "And so it just confuses families."

She described how the family of one of her students from East Oakland recently tried to set up a free account with an internet provider and were placed on hold for hours before eventually being disconnected.

"But they are going to try again," Baez said. "You know why? Because it's about their kid getting internet so they can do their work. But I don't think that's fair. I think about the many other kids all over this country that are not poor. You know, they already have those resources at home. They don't have to do all that."

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The Federal Communications Commission recently asked internet providers to continue providing access to customers through the duration of the coronavirus pandemic, regardless of ability to pay, and more than 700 have pledged to do so.

But there have been plenty of hitches. In Oakland, for instance, Comcast initially denied free access to customers with over a year of outstanding debt, but has since waived that restriction through mid-May.

Baez has been trying to direct her families to Tech Exchange, a digital equity organization in East Oakland, to get help with free services. But she wishes it was as easy as being able to give her students a code that they could simply punch into their computers and access free internet.

She bristles at the assumption that low-income students and students of color will not go above and beyond to succeed academically during the current shut down.

"It's actually the complete opposite," she said. "Because our students have lived in such circumstances that are really difficult and incredibly challenging, their families will go out of their way with whatever means that they have, trying their hardest to give their kids what they need. So it is an equity issue, and we have to resolve it."

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