CA lawmakers work to find ways to close 'digital divide' as distance-learning mandated for most students

In the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, most of California's 6 million public school students will start the fall semester online. 

After an abrupt and challenging shift to distance learning in the spring, lawmakers are keenly aware of the size of the "digital divide." 

“We have enormous work to do to continue to advance our efforts on the digital divide," said Governor Gavin Newsom at Wednesday's daily briefing.  "This is our top concern in this state, the issue of equity.”

“This pandemic has shown significant inequities in our public education system," said State Senator Mike McGuire (D-2nd district).

The digital divide is commonly defined as the gap between students and communities who have access to devices and high speed internet, and those who don't. Those who don't are often in poor or rural communties, disproportionately affecting communities of color. 

“If people have power to make decisions and ensure that everyone has equal access to internet, given that’s how we’re providing instruction—we need to do that, and we need to do it now," said Dr. Elisha Smith Arrillaga, the executive director of The Education Trust–West, a research and advocacy organization focused on educational justice and supporting the high achievement of all California student. 

CA State superintendent of public instruction Tony Thurmond recently explaiend just how wide the gap is in California. 

“There are hundreds of thousands of students without a device or steady access to internet," said Thurmond.

Thurmond assembled a "Digital Divide Task Force," made up of state leaders including McGuire. With a few weeks before many schools are scheduled to start, McGuire said the state is still in need of about: 700,000 laptops and 300,000 hotspots. McGuire estimates all of that equipment could cost $500 million to $1 billion.

“School districts should prepare, in a worst case scenario to be able to be in distance learning for the greater part of this coming school year," said McGuire. "That’s why it’s critical districts go out, purchase the equipment they need for their students and they’ll be reimbursed.”

The state legislature and Governor set aside in the budget to help with distance learning, attached to new minimum requirements. 

“We want daily live interaction with teachers and other students," said Governor Newsom when announcing guidelines for reopening schools. "Students connecting peer-to-peer with other students, teachers connecting daily on an interactive frame.”

McGuire says the task force is also working with internet service providers to secure free or reduced cost internet for students and famillies. But even if every kid gets a laptop and hot spot, there will still be a gap, especially in rural areas.  

“They may not have service," said McGuire.  "So we’re still going to have thousands of children showing up to school everyday in their living room and not having access to the internet.” 

There are a number of bills in the state legislature to expand access to high speed internet as well as providing tax breaks to districts buying devices. But, if the bills pass, they'll take time to implement. State senator McGuire says it'll take other creative solutions to make sure every student is reached, and above all, patience. “It’s been rough for parents and educators alike," said McGuire. "I think we’re going to see significant improvements this year, with results driven distance learning education.”

The Board of Education continues to ask for and collect donations of devices and money at its "California Bridging the Digital Divide Fund."