In summary

Nearly 1 in 3 school-aged children lack access to the robust broadband networks they need for remote learning, SB 1130 would help close the digital divide.

By Lena Gonzalez and

State Sen. Lena Gonzalez, a Democrat from Long Beach, represents the 33rd Senate District, Senator.gonzalez@sen.ca.gov.

James P. Steyer, Special to CalMatters

James P. Steyer is CEO and founder of Common Sense Media, a nonprofit advocacy group, jim@commonsense.org.

Lack of access to the internet means lack of access to education – an effect that has been made even more urgent as school has moved online in response to COVID-19. 

Already districts up and down the state that serve 1.4 million students have announced that they will begin the 2020 school year with students learning from home, and we can be sure that more announcements are coming.

Right now in California, nearly 1 in 3 school-aged children lack access to the robust broadband networks they need to effectively engage in remote learning. For Los Angeles Unified School District, where instruction continued online during the pandemic, only one in four students had the resources they needed to take part in online learning before the pandemic started. 

California’s digital divide is now putting families at risk of losing out on learning, or of jeopardizing their health and safety. Where students and teachers don’t have proper access to devices and connectivity to learn safely at home, they have to risk contracting COVID-19 if they want to continue to access education. And the risk is higher for already vulnerable populations: twice as many Black students are disconnected than their white peers, and Latinx and Native American students are also disproportionately affected.

In response to COVID-19, educators, industry, philanthropy and government have implemented some immediate-relief measures, including providing hot spots, laptops and tablets to kids in need. However, while these actions have been critical to tide school districts through the pandemic, mobile hotspots and free and low-cost trials are inherently short-term fixes rather than long-term solutions. 

We need sustainable fixes, solutions that recognize connectivity and the internet  given that technology is not going away and will always be a part of our education system. Even before COVID-19 the Federal Communications Commission reported that nearly 70% of teachers assigned homework that required broadband access. 

So what can we do to not just put a Band-Aid on the learning gap and instead close it for good?  We must invest in high quality broadband for all Californians, something Gov. Gavin Newsom raised this year.

Legislation that would do just that is already moving through the Legislature, though it is just a matter of time before the industry attempts to kill it. Introduced by state Sen. Lena Gonzalez, Senate Bill 1130, “Broadband for California,” would make existing funds for broadband accessible to all communities in the state and ensure that projects built with these funds are future-proof and have more open-access to our communities. These changes will see an increase in broadband while at the same time ensuring that scarce state dollars are invested in high-quality internet networks that will last communities for decades. 

The bill, which is supported by a broad coalition of supporters, including the AARP and Reddit, will help get California students connected and keep them connected for good. Let’s hope our leaders in Sacramento join us in standing up for kids and families. We cannot afford to let another school year go by where millions of students are left behind.

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