Oakland Unified launches $12.5M fundraiser to close digital divide

About half of Oakland Unified's 50,000 students don't have computers or internet. (OUSD)

Distance learning is hard enough even if you're a student who has a computer and working Wi-Fi at home.

Imagine if you're one of the 25,000 students at Oakland Unified - about half the district's population includent charter school students - who don't have either of these, or you are severely "underconnected."

That's why on Thursday, the Oakland Unified School District, the city of Oakland, the Oakland Public Education Fund and the nonprofit, Tech Exchange, launched a $12.5 million fundraiser to help close this digital divide.

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

They hope the money will be able to buy and supply a computer and internet access to every student in Oakland who needs it, and to do the same for each student in need who joins the district every year.

Speaking at a virtual news conference, Jessica Ramos, who attends Skyline High School, said she doesn't have adequate technology at home and she almost missed a deadline for a scholarship until her school was able to lend her a computer. Many of her friends in "deep East and West Oakland" also fear missing these opportunities, she said.

"My family did not have the internet, which lowered my grades and I missed some deadlines to finish scholarship applications," she said. "I am not alone."

Oakland parent Violeta Escobar told KTVU that her family does not own laptops or WiFi because, before coronavirus, she had considered them luxury items. She and her kids have cell phones, she said, mainly to communicate with each other and relatives in Mexico and El Salvador. She has been able to use her cell phone as a hotspot, but the connectivity has been spotty. 

Just this weekend, however, she said her friend lent her family money to pay for Wi-Fi. And although she's been furloughed from her job at a preschool, she believes she'll be able to start working in August again so that she'll be able to pay for it herself. 

Supt. Kyla Johnson-Trammell said this fundraising effort is to help families like the Escobars.

“This is about equity in education. Every student deserves the ability to study and learn at home, but here in the 21st century, that’s just not fully possible if you cannot access the internet,” Johnson-Trammell said. “That’s why we are starting this critical effort to get technology and Wi-Fi into every student’s home, and to continue the effort every year into the future."

She said the internet should be a "public utility like water, power and even the freeway system, for all of us to use. Until we have universal broadband in this country, we need to do all we can to make the internet available to our students.”

Mayor Libby Schaaf, who has two children in the district, is also behind the effort.

She said computers and the internet give families the "tools that lead to information that improves their lives."

Classwork, communication daunting for million California students with no computers; more donations needed

Oakland leaders are launching a $12.5-million fundraising campaign to close the digital divide.

Oakland Unified, and other schools in the country, have long suffered big gaps in terms of the haves and have-nots regarding access to education and computers.

But the school closures because of the coronavirus pandemic have made this digital divide even more prominent as many students have been unable to fully access distance learning.

To date, OUSD has already loaned more than 18,000 Chromebooks from pre-existing school inventories to students to use at home.

But that number still isn't enough. There are still about 5,000 students who don't have the proper equipment, the district said. 

So far, the Oakland Public Education Fund, also known as the Ed Fund, has donated $400,000 to the campaign.

Salesforce gave  $200,000; Amazon gave $100,000 and the Warriors Community Foundation gave $125,000. 

Other donors include the Koshland Family Foundation, Oakland COVID-19 Relief Fund, The Barrios Trust, Hewlett Packard Enterprise, Intel Foundation, Comcast, Family and Beyond, Kapor Center, Verizon, David and Lucile Packard Foundation, Akonadi Foundation, BlackRock, Anonymous and others.

Oakland teachers, students demand free access to internet

In all, Oakland Unified has raised $1.8 million toward a short-term goal of $2.5 million, district officials said.

But the district is hoping administrators can raise another $10 million for computers and internet access for students who will need them over the summer and for the fall school year. Assuming there is in-person class next year, the district wants to offer computers to students in school as well as lend computers to those who don't have at home, district spokesman John Sasaki said. 

In a statement, Warriors Head Coach Steve Kerr said he was proud to help out the community, but he added there is more to be done.

“We have a lot of mileage to cover in order to put our students of today in a position to succeed tomorrow," he said. "We’ll need everyone’s support to help us achieve this goal.”

If YOU ARE INTERESTED: If you are interested in joining the movement or making a donation or donating computers, hotspots or connecting with other potential partners, please contact David Silver, Director of Education for Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf at dsilver@oaklandca.gov, Curtiss Sarikey, OUSD Chief of Staff at curtiss.sarikey@ousd.org or Jonathan Osler from the Ed Fund at Jonathan@edfund.org. Learn more here. 

Lisa Fernandez is a reporter for KTVU. Email Lisa at lisa.fernandez@foxtv.com or call her at 510-874-0139. Or follow her on Twitter @ljfernandez