California: Digital Divide Fund created to help make distance learning more equitable

With California's six million students physically out of school, the Golden State's First Partner acknowledged to all the kids and parents out there that distance learning is a challenge. 

"I constantly have to remind myself to breathe," Jennifer Siebel Newsom said, adding that it's difficult to help homeschool her four children, two of whom have learning difficulties. 

Still, Siebel Newsom said she is fully aware of her family's overall privilege, and she could only imagine what it is like for others who do not have the resources that hers does. And she's been working to make distance learning more equitable by seeking donations of high-tech equipment to hand to those in need. 

Her husband, Gov. Gavin Newsom, credited his wife for working the phones to solicit donations from some of the big companies, including Google, Apple, Sprint, Amazon and Zoom. 

"Some days have been more frustrating than others," Newsom said of his wife's phone solicitations. 

But overall, with the help of others, the Newsoms said they have been able to secure tens of thousands of electronics, including Chromebooks and iPads, for students as they will be required to finish the school year at home because of coronavirus. 

Here are some of the major donors to help the schools: 

  • T-Mobile is donating 13,000 tablet devices, in addition to the previously-announced 100,000 hotspot devices (for which they partnered with Google.)
  • Amazon is donating 10,000 tablet devices.
  • Apple is working with 800 districts across the state, offering free coaching sessions to teachers to help them with the transition to remote learning. In addition, Apple is offering special pricing for iPads with cellular, and has given the equivalent of 9,000 iPads to ensure the most vulnerable in our state have access.
  • Verizon is partnering with the State of California to provide 250,000 students with unlimited Internet service at a discount.
  • The Chan-Zuckerberg Initiative is donating $1 million. 
  • Jack Dorsey  is donating $1 million. 
  • Ann & John Doerr are donating $1 million. 

And while the influx of gadgets has been promising, Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond said there is more work to be done.

About 20 percent of all California students, nearly 1.2 million, can’t access the internet at home, said Linda Darling-Hammond, president of the California State Board of Education, during last week's news conference with Newsom and Thurmond. 

In a parent survey two weeks ago, 50 percent of low-income families and 42 percent of families of color reported that they lacked the laptop, Chromebook, or tablet needed to access distance learning, the governor's office reported. 

The issue is even more acute in non-urban parts of California.

Only about a third of the state's households in rural areas are subscribed to internet service, compared with 78 percent in urban areas, according to an EdSource analysis of data from the California Public Utilities Commission.

Thurmond pointed to the recent creation of a task force to help close the digital divide, which he said has gone on "longer than this pandemic." 

Thurmond is co-chair of the committee and the first meeting will be held Monday at 4 p.m. 

He also made a plea for anyone who wants to donate to the California Bridging the Digital Divide Fund. The fund is a partnership between the Department of Education and the Californians Dedicated to Education Foundation.

The fund is focused particularly on building more equitable teaching and learning environments, which are currently in even greater jeopardy due to the uneven impacts of COVID-19 on students, families, and educators, Thurmond said.

Those especially impacted by the digital divide, Thurmond said, include those in special education, English learners, low-income and rural populations. 

IF YOU'RE INTERESTED: The California Bridging the Digital Divide Fund accepts individual contributions at Corporate and institutional donors may contact Mary Nicely at For a full list of donors, click here.