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School-issued computers a lifeline for Southern California schoolchildren during pandemic

As this weird fall of distance learning unfolds, new data show that the great majority of schoolchildren in Southern California’s major metro areas are staring at computer screens issued by their school districts — not at devices belonging to their families.

Connectivity in the gargantuan Los Angeles Unified School District as of Sept. 14 (SOURCE: LAUSD)

And while “internet deserts” persist, the vast majority of adults in households with children — some 90 percent or more, depending on how you calculate it — said they had internet access paid for by their families, according to the latest Household Pulse Survey from the U.S. Census Bureau. Only a fraction said their Internet access was provided by school districts.

Perhaps disturbingly, though, 6 percent in the Los Angeles area and 8 percent in the Riverside area did not report anything regarding internet access. A similar sliver — 5 percent in L.A. and 4 percent in Riverside — reported nothing for computer access.

“The people who aren’t responding likely aren’t connected,” said Lloyd Levine, a former state assemblyman, senior policy fellow and co-founder of the UC Riverside School of Public Policy. “The digital divide is most closely correlated with poverty — income of $20,000 to $30,000 a year is where it starts to bottom out.”

More Black, Hispanic and mixed-race adults reported a lack of connectivity — both lack of broadband and computers — than did Whites and Asians. But being able to connect isn’t the whole story.

“There’s connected and there’s under-connected,” said Levine, who has done much work on the issue. “We like to think of it as you are or you aren’t. But if you have a connection, is it good enough to have two or three kids doing a Zoom at the exact same time? That’s what a lot of families are dealing with.”

Valley View High School senior Caylie Barlage enjoys a laugh with volleyball teammates during a Zoom class in her bedroom that her mother and volleyball coach, Jennifer Barlage, teaches in Moreno Valley on Friday, August 14, 2020. (Photo by Terry Pierson, The Press-Enterprise/SCNG)

Moving mountains

School districts have moved mountains over the past six months since in-person education was halted, distributing tens of thousands of computers and hotspot internet connections to families all over the state to try to bridge the digital divide.

“The shift to distance learning was an unprecedented transition that in many cases occurred within days,” said Ian Hanigan, a spokesman for the Orange County Department of Education, which distributed nearly 1,800 hotspots to help local districts expand connectivity, worked with the state to deliver hundreds of laptops and created a website to help educators maintain instructional continuity.

“We are fortunate that an overwhelming majority of Orange County residents have computers and smartphones in their homes, including about 90 percent with broadband internet access, but that still left a substantial number of families without a reliable connection,” Hanigan said. “It is absolutely critical to understand where the gaps are and how to fill them. I know that districts across the county used the summer months to scour survey data to determine why some families didn’t connect and what steps could be taken to ensure engagement.”

In gargantuan Los Angeles Unified — which faced one of Southern California’s driest internet deserts before the pandemic, with only 83 percent of households having broadband access — connectivity now exceeds 98 percent, according to Superintendent Austin Beutner. It partnered with Verizon and provided a computer and free internet access to any student who needed them.

Click on the map to go to an interactive version, where you can click for details on each district.  Data predates pandemic efforts, but illustrates what districts were up against. Source: National Center for Education Statistics and American Community Survey.

Out in the real desert, districts like Palm Springs Unified provided more than 5,000 hotspots to those without access and continue to strive to get families in remote areas connected.

But stubborn pockets remain. And meaningful internet access isn’t just robust broadband and a true computing device that’s not a smartphone, Levine said. It’s also the skills to use them and the involvement of parents to act as teacher aide and tech support.

At first, his own daughter was finishing only half her math problems because she didn’t know she had to scroll down to see the rest of them.


If there’s a silver lining here, it’s that more students are connected to the internet than ever before, more have computers at home and policymakers are seeing “the hard, cold facts of the digital divide staring them in the face,” Levine said.

“We talked about it for years, but it was very theoretical. Now it’s not something you can’t escape anymore.”

The Census Bureau’s Household Pulse surveys began in April and are now taken every two weeks to track America’s ups and downs during the pandemic. The latest data, for Sept. 2-14, found that a growing number of adults in households with children had difficulty paying for usual household expenses, and more were worried about not having enough food to put on the table.

Source: Orange County Register

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