A widely circulated photo of two young girls in Salinas relying on Taco Bell’s wifi for their education. Image from Instagram

By Raoul Lowery Contreras

K-12 students residing in places like Calabasas, Brentwood, Beverly Hills, San Marino, La Jolla, Del Mar, Rancho Santa Fe, Carmel, Burlingame and Marin County are the luckiest kids in California. 

Although the effects of COVID-19 have been widespread, the underserved communities of the state have felt the impacts more acutely than wealthy neighborhoods. Schools remaining closed this fall will only exacerbate the negative effects of the pandemic.

Wealthy families don’t need the free or reduced-cost meals that California schools serve, nor are they dependent upon school nurses for medical attention. The harsh reality is that these well-off zip codes are not dependent on schools being open to have their basic needs met. 

Students who come from underserved communities are less likely to log in this fall and participate in classes. It’s not a lack of desire to learn, but because they do not have devices or access to the Internet to make virtual learning possible. 

Navigating distance learning is far easier for their wealthier counterparts, who often own multiple devices and have wifi in their homes. But countless families across the state lack the means to afford expensive cable Internet service delivered by monopolistic franchises. As seen in a recent viral news story, two students resorted to sitting outside a Taco Bell to access wifi so they could finish their school work.

This is the crux of the current disaster that California is experiencing. Over a million children are experiencing an “educational desert” because schools are closed and districts are unable to provide the necessary devices or connectivity to attend class. It’s a lose-lose situation for these students. 

Los Angeles County has a quarter-million households — mostly Black or Hispanic — that lack either computers or Internet service. It’s nearly impossible for the children in these households to reliably attend “virtual” schools.

Rural counties like Fresno, Imperial, and San Bernardino have even more households without internet service or devices than Los Angeles. Per-capita incomes in rural counties are far below the coastal counties of California, deepening the digital divide.

Raoul Lowery Contreras

We are facing more than a pandemic. We are facing a disaster that will haunt California for an entire generation to come if these students are unable to continue their education this year. California has to answer the tough question of, “What can we do to prevent this from being catastrophic?”

The state could do what Gov. Gavin Newsom is already doing — spread emergency money around to build up Internet and wireless broadband facilities in or around schools. These funds could be used to provide schools with the necessary connectivity.

However, this still wouldn’t solve the urgent concerns of access to both devices and the Internet. And since the regular legislative session just concluded, there’s little the state Senate or Assembly can do to bridge the digital divide. 

Rather, for a fast but long-term fix, the state should — must — partner with private enterprises that are equipped to provide the infrastructure needed to solve this issue. One such company, Kwikbit, is already on track to do so. 

Kwikbit is working as a partner with the California Department of Education to establish a wireless broadband system that is both scalable and affordable. Kwikbit’s technology doesn’t require the time-consuming laying of cable in trenches to be successful.

Corning Unified School District, located north of Sacramento, is working proof of the potential success in Kwikbit’s ability to bridge the digital divide. This partnership has incredible potential and should be more widely distributed across the state — and fast. 

The school year has already started, and the need is more present than ever. Thousands of children are drifting along essentially abandoned by legislators whose children have the Internet, laptops and tablets. 

An army of installers could bring the Internet to every home in California in days once mobilized. How much would it cost today? And what is losing a year of education for millions of kids going to cost us tomorrow?

Raoul Lowery Contreras is a Marine Corps veteran, political consultant and author of the new book White Anglo-Saxon Protestants (WASPS) & Mexicans. His work has appeared in the New American News Service of the New York Times Syndicate.