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Ana Baena is entering her senior year at Roosevelt High School this month. She looks forward to being inside her school again, and casts an eye toward pursuing a college degree in Chicano Studies. Baena grew up in Florida and California, is fluently bilingual and has done well in school. But learning via the internet has been a challenge.

She spent her junior year in the classroom but “my freshman and sophomore year were through Zoom,” says Baena, who lives in the Boyle Heights neighborhood on the Eastside of Los Angeles. Learning online was tougher than it is in the classroom. Baena is familiar with the internet but at home, “You have to learn by yourself. You do this course on a website and you don’t know how to do it. You have no help because your teacher’s not there.

“In school she’s right there with you. You can ask as many questions as you want.”

The Los Angeles Unified School District supplied students with digital tools — Chromebook laptops along with the hotspot devices needed to connect to the internet— so students could attend class via Zoom and turn in homework through Schoology, a district portal.

Even with that help, remote learning was a challenge for the students in Baena’s household — herself, two brothers and two nieces. A hotspot was the only source of connectivity for school.

Maybe the bigger challenge: Hotspot devices depend on signals that ping off local towers, which can unexpectedly drop.

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The experience, she says, was “constantly disruptive. Even though hotspots are very helpful, one thing that is not helpful is that they run out or they turn off. Hotspots can turn off automatically when the battery’s out.

“Then I wouldn’t have Wi-Fi.”

Ideally, a student would have a broadband connection at home — its capacity to transmit large amounts of data along a secured network makes broadband a more dependable source than a hotspot. But affordable choices for broadband are not as abundant in Baena’s neighborhood as they may be in wealthier L.A. communities.

In Boyle Heights, with a median income of $32,463, rising rents and a high percentage of families affected by unemployment stemming from COVID, broadband is available for monthly rates of between $50 to over $100, making it a reach for many households.

Baena’s struggle with online learning mirrors the experience of students across the United States who live in areas with little access to a robust internet connection.

The challenges for students forced to learn from home expose aspects of what’s been called the digital divide, defined as the opportunity gap between those who can afford laptops, computers and high-speed internet connection and those who cannot.

It’s largely an economic divide because digital access tends to grow where there’s money.

“If you live in a wealthy neighborhood, you typically have two, maybe three ISPs [internet service providers] in your area,” says Hernan Galperin, associate professor of communications at USC and director of the Annenberg Research Network on International Communication.

Companies that provide internet service compete to move into higher-end areas, which, Galperin says, provides consumers in these neighborhoods with lower pricing options encouraged by the competition.

“That does not tend to happen in a lower income area where racial minorities are located. What we see is less availability, higher prices,” says Galperin. Lower income households and those living in lower income neighborhoods are less likely to acquire the connectivity and internet fluency needed to navigate the digital world.

The digital divide in education is not new, though the pandemic era has brought it into high relief as school districts scrambled to meet the increased challenge of connecting with students. As far back as 2015, a Pew Research Center analysis based on U.S. Census Bureau data showed 35% of households with children ages 6 to 17 and an annual income below $30,000 had no high-speed connection at home.

That caused a “homework gap” for students unable to surf the web to complete assignments or communicate with teachers. School districts rushed to connect students and teachers no longer in the same building, struggling to stay ahead of predicted learning deficits related to the pandemic. New York City, the largest school district in the United States, received $192 million from the $7 billion federal E-Rate Emergency Connectivity Fund for schools to provide Wi-Fi hotspots, modems, routers, internet service and internet-enabled devices to students.

In May, the Los Angeles Unified School District, the second largest in the United States, contracted with Charter Communications (which owns the Spectrum brand) and AT&T to devise and launch a $50 million program assuring high-speed access to every student. “Connectivity and universal ubiquitous access to digital content anytime anywhere, whether in school, in the community, in the park or the public library, is a civil right that must be delivered to our generation” Superintendent Alberto M. Carvalho said in announcing the program.

However, funding past this year is not a given. LAUSD Board Member Jackie Goldberg, a former teacher, welcomes the current financial boost. But she cautions, “We know that we will get funding from federal and state funds for a period of time, but we’re trying to figure out how to make sure to make this permanent.

“Our goal is to have some 20, 25% of our students who had hotspots to stay online during the pandemic to be wired. And we want them to get real internet service, not just for them but for their families as well.”

The problem for LAUSD wasn’t distributing laptops, Goldberg says. Referring to the LAUSD superintendent from May 2018 to June 2021, she says, “One thing I’ll say about Austin Beutner, as soon as we closed schools, he ordered every laptop we could find in the entire country.”

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The issue remains connectivity — students “not being able to get online, getting bounced offline, not wanting to turn on their cameras because the room they were in was not something they were particularly proud of. Or [there were] five kids at home so they only had three hotspots. There were lots and lots of problems for lots of kids who got left behind.”

Cities aren’t the only places students face digital challenges — those in rural areas struggle as well.

Rey León is mayor of the San Joaquin Valley community of Huron, population 7,100, median income $25,060. Farmworker families make up much of the population. The Coalinga-Huron School District received approximately $8 million from the state of California, León says, much of it invested in hotspots and laptops for students.

He describes seeing students doing school work and attending class in local McDonalds parking lots, where they knew the Wi-Fi was reliable, unlike the spotty connection at home.

For León, the issue is equity of access. AT&T is one of the local service providers in the Valley, and León calls AT&T “somewhat deficient — the broadband is always shutting down.”

The company offers internet broadband at $55 monthly — the lowest rates that would barely keep you connected in many areas of Huron, as León describes it — and invites consumers to explore its website further to check out the pricing to get “the speed you need.” The question is — can they afford it?

León calls it “a high rate for something that should be a utility and subsidized for families that keep the food chain in place but are not paid enough to cover the education of their children.”

Help for the Central Valley may be on the way. In July 2021 California Gov. Gavin Newsom signed into law a $6 billion, multiyear plan to construct a state-owned “middle mile system” — high-capacity fiber lines that move large amounts of data at high speeds over long distances. Think of it as an information backbone stretching across the state. The state pledges that it will be completed by December 2026.

The plan also allots $2 billion to set up “last mile” broadband connections — the final leg of connectivity linking homes, businesses and schools with local networks to deliver broadband to places like Huron.

That’s Stan Santos’ department. The Central Valley resident has been a Communications Workers of America activist for over 22 years. As a technician who came up through the ranks, he knows the way middle mile and last mile fiber optics work.

Santos decided to climb into his Chevy pickup and “ride a network,” that is, drive from town to town in order to map the roads and distances between and document the lack of “last mile” connection from California’s “middle mile” and the homes in the small Valley communities.

“You’re bypassing all these communities,” Santos says. “And yes, they are communities of 7,000, as small as 4,000, say like [the city of] San Joaquin.”

The CWA was at the table with the California Public Utilities Commission after the unions secured support resolutions from city councils in four underconnected Valley communities in support of broadband infrastructure and the West Fresno County Fiber Optic Network.

Those communities Santos mapped became Project 10 of the state’s initial middle mile projects plan.

But even in urban areas that are connected with broadband and laptops, parents can often be challenged by the knowledge gap, says Henry Perez, associate director of InnerCity Struggle, a multi-issue Eastside organization founded in 1994 by parents and residents who organized in schools to address overcrowding and policies that pushed students out.

To help parents learn the internet skills they need, Perez advocates for the community schools model that updates the traditional definition of a public school, reimagining schools as multidimensional neighborhood centers that provide health care, mental health services, tutoring, pediatric care and other social support. “Every school should have a community coordinator that can help parents and students navigate the various needs that they have,” Perez says. And that includes making internet help available for parents that have jobs that aren’t nine to five.

Evelyn Aleman is a Reseda parent who launched Our Voices/Nuestra Voz (NV) on Facebook in September 2020 while recovering from a five-month bout with COVID. NV is a response to the need for Spanish-speaking and other parents to connect with the internet in order to communicate with teachers.

Parents had some internet access on their phones but, Aleman says, when “we launched a family Zoom session on Fridays, we lost families on the Zoom. That’s how I learned the parents didn’t have affordable, accessible internet.”

The parents also lacked critical computer skills that would keep them easily connected. Aleman’s group formed a partnership with the 10-year-old nonprofit Everyone On, which provides parents with laptops and six weeks of training in digital skills. The families get to keep the laptop.

Digital tech skills, access to computer devices and access to reliable broadband are not just critical to parents’ ability to support their children’s education, but to advocate for them, attend board meetings virtually and use Twitter and other platforms to weigh in on policy.

The need, says Aleman “is so intense.

Crossposted from Capital And Main