By Nick Melvoin | Special for CalMatters
With the closure of schools due to the coronavirus pandemic, I have watched incredible, innovative uses of technology to lift spirits and continue learning for students.
I’ve watched entire classrooms meeting on Zoom. I’ve seen schools setting up virtual trouble-shooting hotlines and classes editing group documents together. Teachers are assigning work using apps and providing tips via smartphone messages. I’ve even seen virtual clubs and PE classes bringing kids together.
But none of this is possible for teachers and students who can’t access reliable Internet. The digital divide is leaving our highest need families disconnected.
Nearly 25% of Los Angeles Unified School District households lack access to stable connectivity. That’s more than 100,000 kids — disproportionately low-income kids of color — without Internet access. The same is true in other California cities. This is unacceptable enough on a normal school day. But during the coronavirus pandemic, it’s unconscionable that we would leave any student unequipped to login and show up for class.
LAUSD is working hard to provide access to all students — last week, announcing an emergency investment of $100 million to purchase tens of thousands of devices and provide free, stable Internet connectivity through a Verizon partnership — to deliver quality distance learning opportunities while schools remain closed.
Many affluent students across Los Angeles are waking up and virtually joining their classmates for a structured day of online learning. These students are adjusting to a new way of receiving instruction, for sure, but the general instruction doesn’t necessarily need to change.
Not so, however, for most students who can’t connect with their teachers and classmates. The academic inequity is so stark that some districts around the country are prohibiting any online work from counting toward students’ grades.
Additionally, the lack of connectivity can take a toll on mental health and lead to an increase in depression and anxiety, according to The American Psychological Association. With mental health problems among teenagers on the rise, the ability to check in and feel connected is a lifesaver.
The good news is we do have the ability to connect everyone. Cities like Beverly Hills, Santa Monica and Pasadena already provide free universal Internet. Los Angeles provides pockets of free WiFi, including specific parks, Los Angeles International Airport, parts of downtown L.A., Staples Center and Dodger Stadium, and the Convention Center.
In the wake of COVID-19, other major service providers besides Verizon — including AT&T, Comcast/Xfinity, Cox, Spectrum/Charter, Sprint and T-Mobile — have stepped up to provide free temporary Internet access. All we need is the political will to make it permanent.
And L.A. has contemplated this before. In 2013, the City Council approved a request for proposal to build a citywide WiFi network to help “bridge the digital divide” and noted student connectivity challenges as one of the main motivations. Although cost and other barriers hindered the 2013 plan, different municipalities have approached this in different ways, and there are creative ways to blanket L.A. County in free Internet.
Often, a private company will work with a local municipality to construct and operate a network, with financing shared by the firm and the government. Google, for example, has partnered with cities from San Diego to Kansas City to San Francisco to explore citywide access.
Santa Monica, on the other hand, built their own fiber-optic network, which operates as a city service. Another innovative approach is utilizing existing networks and partitioning a percentage for public use. Major providers such as Comcast have already done this to create public networks. Capitalizing on existing networks, including LAUSD’s at more than a thousand campuses throughout L.A., may make the most sense in a city as large as ours.
But it can, and should, be done. The COVID-19 pandemic has elucidated existing inequities and the vulnerabilities many of our neighbors live with every day. This is the moment to look beyond short-term fixes and seize the opportunity to think bigger. Every student in California should have free Internet access and now is the time to make it happen.
Nick Melvoin, a former teacher, is a member of the Los Angeles Unified School District Board of Education. Melvoin wrote this commentary for CalMatters, a public interest journalism venture committed to explaining how California’s Capitol works and why it matters.
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