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Fixing the Digital Divide Could Cost Congress Billions

Twenty percent of California’s Bay Area residents don't have a home Internet connection, a problem made worse during shelter-in-place orders. A recent bill passed by the House would provide billions to fix the problem.

(TNS) — Jessica Ramos’ family had a decision to make after her father lost much of his work when the coronavirus pandemic struck: pay the mortgage on their East Oakland, Calif., home or pay their internet bill.

It wasn’t really a choice. But losing online access at home meant that Jessica, a junior at Skyline High School, had to sit for hours outside the closed Dimond branch of the Oakland Public Library so she could tap into the internet connection there to finish her homework.

“It was distracting,” Jessica said. “There were people walking past talking on their phones and buses and people playing music loud in their cars.”

Jessica’s plight isn’t unusual, even though she lives a short drive from the heart of Silicon Valley. One in 5 Bay Area residents lacks an internet connection at home, according to Tech Exchange, a nonprofit that supplies computers to underserved communities. While wealthy parents worry about curbing their kids’ screen time during the pandemic, 40% of the kids in many poor neighborhoods don’t have screens.

The coronavirus relief package that the House passed Friday tries to address that disparity. It contains $4 billion in broadband support for low-income Americans and those who recently lost their jobs, and another $1.5 billion for schools and libraries to upgrade their connectivity and purchase more equipment.

President Trump and other Republicans have derided the $3 trillion bill, co-authored by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of San Francisco, as a lengthy liberal wish list that has no chance of passing in its current form. But there is bipartisan support for more broadband funding. Many rural districts represented by Republicans lack adequate internet access, just as some poorer urban districts represented by Democrats do.

That’s a whisper of hope for advocates that after years of effort, they may be able to persuade government to help close a digital gap that otherwise threatens to grow and exacerbate the nation’s education inequalities.

Twenty years after the term “digital divide” was coined, the gap remains so broad that it will take a sustained effort to bridge it.

“This divide has always existed,” said Federal Communications Commission member Jessica Rosenworcel, a longtime advocate for closing the information gap. “But the pandemic has exposed the hard truth that the digital divide in this country is really, really big.”

The information divide between rich and poor families that “was implicit” before the pandemic, said David Silver, director of education for the city of Oakland, “is now explicit.”

Philanthropists are pitching in to bridge the gap, too. On Friday, billionaire Twitter chief executive Jack Dorsey gave $10 million to the Oakland Unified School District to help supply every one of its students with a laptop and internet access. Last month, Gov. Gavin Newsom announced that several companies had answered his call for help and provided 70,000 laptops and tablets for students. Other companies provided money to improve internet connectivity.

But some of the largesse might not last beyond the pandemic.

Take Dorsey’s gift. It was given a day after Oakland announced a drive to raise $12 million to address the immediate digital needs that the pandemic exacerbated. But Dorsey’s grant will cover the cost of internet access to poor families for only a year, Silver said. The ongoing cost is $4 million annually.

“Jack’s gift was generous and amazing,” Silver said. “But we’ve got to make sure that the gap is covered in the years going forward.”

There needs to be a solution that helps people like Jacqueline Pérez-Rosales. The Oakland resident has five children, three of whom are in school now. Her family didn’t own a computer until three weeks ago, when they were given one by Tech Exchange.

“I didn’t know how important it was to have a computer at home,” Pérez-Rosales said. “Until the coronavirus.”

Her children worked on paper packets of assignments that their teachers sent home with them after schools were closed. But after a couple of weeks, her sixth-grader and fourth-grader realized that they would need something more. A teacher at their school helped Pérez-Rosales to obtain a computer from Tech Exchange.

That solved one problem, but then Pérez-Rosales discovered others. Her new home internet connection wasn’t very strong. So now, instead of paying $10 a month, the family is paying $75. They can’t afford much more. She is a house cleaner who has been out of work since the pandemic started. Her husband is a technician for a garage door company.

Now that the family has a computer, Pérez-Rosales is finding it hard to manage which children get time online and when.

“When one is on the computer, I say to the other one, ‘You can use my phone.’ But they say, ‘It’s better with a laptop. I can’t see anything on your phone,’” Pérez-Rosales said.

She sees the value in having a second computer. She also understands that her family must eventually obtain devices for her kindergartner and her twin 2-year-olds.

Making more computers available for children is the goal of Oakland Unified Superintendent Kyla Johnson-Trammell, whose district has distributed for home use the 18,000 Chromebooks that students were using in classrooms before campuses closed. But those devices will have to be returned to schools when in-person education eventually resumes. The superintendent is thinking beyond that time.

“Our initial goal is trying to ensure that there is one device per household,” Johnson-Trammell said. “But our ultimate goal is becoming one to one,” a computer for every student.

Jessica, the Skyline High junior, sees the value in that. She realizes that her family needs more than one device, too. Her father is an Uber driver who hasn’t had much work since Bay Area residents began sheltering in place. He needs a way to search online for jobs. So does her mother, who now works a shift starting at 3 a.m. at a Walgreens before showing up for her second job at a preschool.

Soon, Jessica will start applying for college and scholarships and will need more time online. The last few weeks have magnified the disparities and challenges that she will face in competing for a place at top colleges like her dream school, Stanford.

“I realize that there is no equity,” Jessica said. But, she added, navigating those inequities over the past few weeks “has made me stronger as a student.”

©2020 the San Francisco Chronicle. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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