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California County Donates $7.1M to Close Tech, Digital Divide

Santa Clara County officials announced the multimillion dollar donation earlier this week. It will be used to fund laptops, tablets and hot spots for 15,000 under-connected students in the San Jose area.

a student using a tablet
Shutterstock/Ann in the uk
(TNS) — As a San Jose middle school teacher, Brenna Rodriguez has seen the digital divide that separates the haves and have-nots for many years.

The gap has only magnified since the coronavirus pandemic shuttered classrooms last spring and forced administrators to usher in distance-learning models that rely heavily on computer use.

But now some help is on the way.

With campuses still closed as the new school year begins, Santa Clara County officials announced Monday they will donate $7.1 million to provide 15,000 under-connected students in San Jose with laptops, tablets and hotspots.

The news follows an announcement last week that San Jose has partnered with AT&T to provide $8.2 million for infrastructure and digital devices that will help 11,000 students.

Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors President Cindy Chavez said during a news conference Monday at the Franklin-McKinley School District in San Jose that thousands of students would languish if action isn’t taken.

“The pandemic has revealed and compounded what we already knew was a problem,” Chavez said. “And that is really demonstrating that the digital divide pulls families from opportunities every day across this community and across the nation.

“Thousands of students don’t have access to the Internet because they don’t have WiFi, they don’t have computers or tablets or even a cell phone to learn from home. We know in our community that has to end now.”

Rodriguez said she has seen firsthand the differences between districts with resources and those trying to make do. Although her stepdaughter attends school in wealthier Sunnyvale, Rodriguez said she herself has taught for 12 years in the Franklin-McKinley School District including the past six at Sylvandale Middle School and has nieces and nephews enrolled at East San Jose schools.

Rodriguez said the last school year was the first time she had computers for all students in her classroom.

“Prior to that, I either had none, was sharing a computer lab or was sharing a Chrome card,” Rodriguez added. “That makes educating in our current times very challenging.

“Many teachers like myself have funded their own classrooms with materials because either parents can’t afford to provide them for themselves or the school budget had run out.”

San Jose City Councilmember Magdalena Carrasco called the digital divide “the social justice issue of our time.”

Carrasco added, “If we don’t connect our kiddos with an infrastructure that allows them to level the playing field, to be able to finish their distance learning … it is beholden upon us to make sure that we give them every tool possible, every tool necessary, every resource that is within our grasp to make sure that we help them catch up.”

Rodriguez said many teachers have brought older devices to their classrooms and have even gone into dumpsters to retrieve computers to help students at least write an essay.

A majority of East San Jose students do their schoolwork on a smartphone, she noted.

“Imagine doing all of your classwork for multiple subjects on a smartphone,” Rodriguez said. “Then people wonder why is this not in on time? Or why did you not do this? Because they don’t have adequate access.”

While Rodriguez appreciates the aid from county and city officials, she called on the valley’s tech industry to do its part, too.

“Why are these industries, why are these private companies not trying to support our schools?” she said.

The county’s $7.1 million investment was given to the Santa Clara County Office of Education for distribution, with much of it targeted for computing devices.

“The goal for Franklin-McKinley is ensuring that every single student in our school district has a district-issued device,” said Superintendent Juan Cruz, who oversees 13 elementary and three middle schools.

Cell phones and outdated devices, which his students have used, present access problems, Cruz said, adding that the only way to correct that issue “is to make sure they have district devices that we can troubleshoot and that we know are going to be compatible with all the learning tools that we have.”

Cruz said his district also plans to provide support for parents who don’t know how to use the devices.

“Just giving them a device and access is not enough,” he said. “We will be offering professional development for our parents so that they know how to support their child at home.”

©2020 the San Jose Mercury News, Distributed by ribune Content Agency, LLC.