Roughly one year ago today, students across California transitioned to distance learning in an effort to continue education during the Covid-19 pandemic. As the pandemic raged on and “two weeks to slow the spread” turned into months without a light at the end of the tunnel, many began to struggle with the extensive screen time and the influx of assignments that came with online school.
But what happened to the students who never logged on?
According to the Office of Governor Gavin Newsom, roughly 20% of California students lacked an adequate computing device or high-speed Internet connection to participate in distance learning at home in April 2020. The issue has persisted throughout the pandemic, with Ed Source reporting that up to 1 million California students could still be unable to participate in distance learning as of October 2020.
The digital divide in California has been an issue for decades, but the COVID-19 pandemic demonstrates the detrimental impact lacking access to the Internet can have on hundreds of thousands of California students. For students in California today, not having access to technology means not having access to an education.
“I don’t think after the pandemic hit, people looked at the Internet the same way as they did before. Especially in the 90s, the Internet was seen as a luxury. It’s such a utility now,” Kurt Peluso, the Senior Director of Programs and Partnerships at EveryoneOn, a nonprofit working to close the digital divide, said. “Having connectivity is essential, especially with schoolwork when you have distance learning.”
For students in California today, not having access to technology means not having access to an education.
As communities across the nation debate whether or not to reopen physical schools, it seems many have forgotten about the students who haven’t had access to any school at all for the past year, whether it be online or in person.
Students who have devices like cell phones still fall behind those with laptops or computers. Actions like writing long essays, compiling Excel spreadsheets and viewing full class sizes of people become much more difficult on smaller screens.
“There are people who see someone with a phone and think it’s adequate to being connected, but it’s not,” Peluso said. “This is fun for easy things to stay connected through apps and other sources, but when it comes to the professional use of the Internet, a laptop or computer is really essential.”
Students without Wi-Fi may also not be able to access helpful services like in-person libraries, many of which are closed during the COVID-19 pandemic. Visiting fast food locations or coffee shops for Wi-Fi access creates instability, and these services may require a purchase.
“We came across a bunch of students in Charlotte who were outside a McDonald's doing their homework because that was the only place they could get connectivity,” Peluso said. “They called it ‘Wi-Fi for Fries’ because McDonald’s got word of this and made the students purchase something to have Internet to do their homework.”
The digital divide in California is not just an issue for education, but also a problem for racial equality. According to the Public Policy Institute of California, an average of 84% of homes across California have broadband subscriptions, but that number drops to 81% for African-American households and 79% for Latino households. More than 10% of Californians did not have access to a computing device in 2019, but that number increased to 20% for African-American and Latino households.
“They called it ‘Wi-Fi for Fries’ because McDonald’s got word of this and made the students purchase something to have Internet to do their homework.”
“There have been policies that have hurt Black and Brown individuals more than white people. Redlining is often used when it comes to ISPs (Internet service providers) and how they build out their networks. You can see maps where they excluded Black and Brown communities in certain areas because of concerns regarding affordability, and that’s just not right,” Peluso said. “It definitely is from the get-go a racial issue.”
In addition to highlighting racial inequalities, California’s digital divide also shows the inequalities already present between those in urban, suburban and rural areas. According to the United States Census Bureau, the household broadband Internet subscription rate was 65% for “completely rural” counties, 67% for “mostly rural” counties and 75% for “mostly urban” counties as of 2018.
“You have a huge need in urban areas where affordability is an issue. You also have a need in rural areas where they don’t have access at all,” Peluso said. “You also have some towns that are financially well off that have pockets of poverty.”
President Joe Biden advocated for ending the digital divide before the 2020 election, and pledged to invest resources and funding into combating the issue. In January, he appointed Jessica Rosenworcel as the acting chair of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), an advocate for improving the FCC’s broadband maps to help make efforts towards addressing the digital divide more effective.
“One silver lining with COVID is that there’s been more of a focus on it. I can’t tell you how many more people have reached out to us and are acknowledging this huge divide that they have within their communities,” Peluso said. “There’s finally a light being shown.”