Our most vulnerable students need learning, internet now

By Sam Liccardo and Matt Hammer

If anyone doubted the impact of the digital divide on the educational and economic destiny of thousands of San Jose children, those doubts vanished on March 13, 2020. On that day, Joshua and Bereniz learned the same news — that the coronavirus pandemic would force the closure of their schools — but with very different outcomes.

Within a week of closure, Joshua received a laptop and assignments from his school. He now receives feedback from his teacher every morning, and he communicates daily with a speech therapist and adapted physical education teacher to address his special needs relating to autism.

In contrast, Bereniz did not receive a laptop from her school and her mother did not hear from her school district for two weeks. Without internet access at home, Bereniz could not complete her assignments. Her mom worries Bereniz will be left behind.

In response to the shutdown, many school districts have stepped up — among them, Alum Rock Union, Campbell Union, Campbell High, Franklin-McKinley Elementary, and East Side Union High School Districts, along with public charter schools Rocketship, Alpha, ACE, Downtown College Prep, and Sunrise Middle Schools. Although these schools serve some of our lowest-income families, their children benefit from learning experiences like Joshua’s, because their districts nimbly responded to school closures through distance learning. They have leaned into the challenge by communicating regularly with families, training teachers and staff on new technologies, providing virtual office hours for students and parents, ensuring accommodations for students with special needs, and even creating an online portal for other schools’ teachers and parents to use its distance learning programs.

Other districts have not fared so well, and have left thousands of laptops in their classrooms to gather dust. Our children deserve better.

Moreover, even in the most forward-thinking of schools, between 10 to 30% of students lack the resources they need — an estimated 19,512 San Jose students lack a tablet or computer they can use at home, while 15,824 students have no home connection to the internet to engage in distance learning.

Although the city of San Jose has neither authority nor budgetary responsibility over our 19 school districts, the city has a moral responsibility to support their critical work. Among the city’s many educational initiatives, it committed to close the digital divide in San Jose by launching the Digital Inclusion Partnership last year, to build digital skills and expand broadband access. With the Silicon Valley Leadership Group and the San Jose Library Foundation, the city launched coding camps for more than 7,000 children, and partnered with East Side Union High School District to connect over 6,000 families to free internet. The city is also building a pipeline of refurbished devices to get devices to our students more affordably.

Innovate Public Schools is supporting low-income families in the Bay Area to set up their homes for distance learning and to access online learning resources.

Just as Silicon Valley has led the nation in our public health response to COVID-19, we must lead the educational response to this pandemic by ensuring that all our children can engage in distance learning. If racial and economic disparities in educational quality constitute the civil rights battle of our age, then digital access lies at the center of that battleground.

Our kids depend on our teachers to do what they do best: provide an excellent education. They need school district leaders to move quickly and creatively to invest in remote learning for teachers and principals. They need the rest of us — particularly those business leaders and donors who might be able to help — to support equitable digital access. Please learn more at SJDigitalInclusion.org.

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