csba at issue
By Alisha Kirby
Finding local long-term solutions to the digital divide

he digital divide, or the gap between those who have access to the internet and those who do not, isn’t new — but with the pandemic and widespread school closures came an acknowledgment that the problem needed to be resolved as quickly as possible or students would be left behind.

District and county office of education boards have been among the most vocal for years about the need to connect students to high-speed internet both at school and at home where they do the majority of their homework.

In a poll commissioned last fall by the Education Trust-West, 38 percent of low-income families and 29 percent of families of color said they were concerned about distance learning because they lack reliable internet at home. In rural areas, only one-third of California households are subscribed to internet service, according to an EdSource analysis of data from the California Public Utilities Commission. And even in urban areas that have access to the internet, network speeds are frequently too slow to make distance learning practical, and the more expensive internet plans simply aren’t feasible for many families.

“I think there’s something about children not having access to school because their parents can’t afford internet that just touches people, moves people, outrages people,” said Mary Visher, a Point Arena Schools trustee and founder of EduAct, a grassroots organization that is spearheading a project called Connecting the Coastal Community (CCC) in an effort to bridge gaps in the digital divide in Mendocino and Sonoma counties.

CCC is one of the numerous organizations through which local educational agencies have partnered with nearby health and internet providers, city councils, nonprofits and more to ensure families have the connectivity they need at home to access educational and health services. Now that students’ short-term technology needs have mostly been met, LEAs are looking toward long-term solutions.

Rural schools have different needs
The Mendonoma coast, as Visher calls it, straddles Sonoma and Mendocino counties and includes about 35 miles of coastline from Stewarts Point to Irish Beach. Though a spectacularly beautiful vacation destination for many in the Bay Area, “there’s a lot of hidden poverty that you don’t see without going further up into the hills or into the valleys,” she said.

Along that stretch of coast are four districts — comprising six schools — serving a population of no more than about 15,000 people, Visher said. The largest, Arena Union Elementary School District, enrolls about 230 students. The smallest, the Kashia School District located on the Kashia Band of the Pomo Indian Tribes Reservation in Stewarts Point, serves just 15 students.

Point Arena is particularly remote, with the nearest sizable city, Santa Rosa, about a two-hour drive one way on a long, very narrow, windy road.

“This has really defined both what we can do and can’t do in our schools. We have all of the problems that come with poverty when it comes to schools, and on top of that, all the problems that come with living in a very remote, rural area, because we don’t have easy access to the services that urban areas have,” Visher said. “Being remote, being topographically difficult to serve and being poor and with almost no social service agencies, a community like this just sort of looks at each other and says, ‘Hey, we better do this for ourselves because if we don’t, no one else will.’”

When schools closed in March it came to Visher’s attention that residents of a local 40-home low-income housing development, most of whom have school-aged children, lacked internet. It also became clear that the community should be able to connect through an adjacent sophisticated fiber-optic network owned by AT&T. The local wireless provider, Further Reach, already relies on this network to provide internet to the surrounding community.

“It really was not a big deal to dig a few more trenches to connect each house with internet,” Visher said. “So now all of those approximately 50 children who did not have internet, now have high-speed, reliable internet.”

A CCC survey to determine the need for other families in the Mendonoma region found that approximately 100 households with school-aged children lacked adequate internet. Many were relying on paper packets for their distance learning.

Through financial contributions from Further Reach, the Mendocino County Community Foundation and the James J. Cummings Foundation in Mendocino, as well as private donations from local citizens — who within two weeks had raised $23,000 — CCC has been able to connect 75 homes with children with internet access.

“Connected,” in this case, means they either had new internet installed or received assistance to pay for their monthly internet bills with the help of Mendonoma Health Alliance and/or both, Visher said. “The generosity of this community just kind of blew me away,” she said.

a young girl sit with an iPad and earbuds in her ears
“I think there’s something about children not having access to school because their parents can’t afford internet that just touches people, moves people, outrages people.”
—Mary Visher, Point Arena Schools board member and founder of EduAct
LEAs find power in numbers
Mountain View Whisman School District Board President Devon Conley noticed a similar lack of connectivity among some of the approximately 5,300 students enrolled in her district, located just 10 minutes from Google’s corporate headquarters.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, Mountain View Whisman SD has provided hot spots and devices for children in need, and has become a 1:1 district, meaning every student has their own device. The district also encouraged families to sign up for Xfinity and AT&T programs that offer discounted internet packages to low-income households. The problem, Conley said, is that such plans are not sufficient for students in distance learning.

In one family, three children couldn’t simultaneously use Zoom for class due to the weak internet connection provided to those on discounted plans. The family wound up subscribing to a program that was $150 a month. “This is a family that couldn’t afford food,” she said. “They were having to spend what little money they had on internet access.”

Conley, along with five other nearby school districts, co-founded the Digital Equity Coalition to better address the digital divide by focusing on providing universal internet access for high-needs families throughout Santa Clara County via short-term emergency solutions and long-term infrastructure development.

School board trustees representing districts throughout the region came out in support of the coalition’s advocacy and secured $7.1 million from the San Jose City Council to fund the devices, hotspots and data plans for 15,000 families, as well as $1.5 million to place 4,200 small cell wireless network antennas on streetlight poles as a way to expand reliable WiFi access to the students and the community.

“We believe that internet access is a human right at this point,” Conley said. “Everyone needs to be able to get online for health care, mental health care, access to support around housing and food, finding out where you can get your COVID vaccination, applying for unemployment benefits or applying for jobs, working from home — all of these things have moved online. If we want to think about the health and well-being of students and their families, we really need to be pushing for universal internet access.”

Right now, her district is piloting a Citizens Broadcast Radio Service at one of its schools that uses a similar technology as cell phones to push out internet access to a certain distance around the school. The coalition, meanwhile, is focused on state-level advocacy in supporting legislation targeting broadband expansion. Learn more about the bills here: https://bit.ly/3wifsvX

No longer waiting on internet providers
“I think one of the challenges here is that, and I’m going to be very frank, the internet service providers have lobbied for a very long time for legislation at the state and federal level that is very favorable to them,” Conley explained. “As a single school district, you just do not have the lobbying power at the state level to really do much about that. But as a larger collective, the more we can work together and the more we can draw broader public attention to this issue, the better.”

Point Arena residents understand the inaction of private companies when it comes to providing communities with internet speeds required to use many online services. When AT&T tore up local roads to trench new cables 20 years ago, company representatives pointed to vague tech and cost reasons as to why it could not increase network connectivity in the region.

“It’s not profitable for AT&T or other big companies to come in here and start serving people,” Visher said. “We’re sparsely populated, we live in deep canyons and valleys and perched on the bluff … AT&T takes one look at this, does the math and says, ‘Nope, it’s not profitable for us. We’re just going to bypass this area and run our fiber optic up and over the hills and into cities where we can actually make profits.’”

A long-term solution would be to force a company like AT&T to share its fiber optic network she said. “It’s actually in the ground here, those AT&T cables, but they’re not interested in letting people have access.”

CCC will continue to help local families offset monthly bills and to install internet in homes with students for as long as it has money to do so. “That in and of itself fills a long-term need,” Visher said. “The buildings where we install these radio antennae are going to stay there, so while families will come and go, there will still be internet in a home where there wasn’t internet before.”

Alisha Kirby is a staff writer for California Schools.