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The digital divide of Los Angeles students is a civil rights issue, says superintendent

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The digital divide of Los Angeles students is a civil rights issue, says superintendent

On Tuesday, Los Angeles school officials announced a $ 50 million effort to provide adequate Internet for all families in the nation’s second-largest school system, the latest attempt to close a sustainable digital divide that limits learning for non-family students. can afford. pay for high-speed Wi-Fi access.

According to LA Unified estimates, about 20% of students – about 90,000 children – either still do not have broadband access or do not have enough bandwidth to meet academic needs – despite the initial operational rush at the start of distance learning two years so to fix the problem. The new initiative aims to cover them all in one year using short-term federal funding to cover about 96% of the cost. It looks like federal resources will also be available for the second year, Supt. Alberto Carvalho said at the opening ceremony at Bell High School.

The school system will offer access both for family reunification and to demonstrate the need for this connection to federal and government officials – in the hope of continued funding.

“Connecting and ubiquitous access to digital content at any time, anywhere, in school, in society, in a park or in a public library, is a civil right that must be passed on to our generation,” Carvalho said.

A separate district activity, also announced Tuesday, will give students a computer they could keep at home. According to officials, about 60,000 students will benefit initially. Home computers are needed, as are textbooks, said Los Angeles School Board member Tanya Ortiz Franklin, who supports the project.

The Internet Access Initiative, which has been in the planning and pilot phase for more than a year, has been officially launched in a low-income area, indicating both the challenges facing families and past successes in district efforts to help. them.

When the pandemic in March 2020 led to the closure of campuses, the first few months were particularly difficult for Andrea Masiel, a ninth-grader at Bell High. Her mother lost her job and could no longer afford to pay for online services, making it difficult to keep up with school work, even if the school sent her a computer.

“I struggled with that,” Andrea said. “I had to go to the library or to a neighbor. She was kind of good enough to let me borrow her Wi-Fi and I was able to get the job done. ”

Nearly 1 in 5 low-income families in a recent survey said they have been without internet for a long time, citing cost as the main reason for the shutdown.

Compared to many schools, Bell High was relatively quick to distribute Internet access among students, and this worked for Andrea, but not for everyone in the broad school system, which has about 450,000 students. Hotspots had limited bandwidth, and different brands of hotspots worked better in some areas than in others. In some areas, hotspots were almost useless.

Santiago Juarez, now a ninth-grader at Bell High, had trouble supporting the Internet in high school.

“Sometimes Wi-Fi was turned off because too many people were using it at the same time,” Santiago said. “And he just wanted to turn it off and it wouldn’t work for hours.”

His family has moved to a more efficient service provider.

“They had to pay more, but in the end it was worth it because we were able to join the classes and do our job,” he said.

Vendors offered discounts at the start of the pandemic, but those offers passed or provided only limited bandwidth or were not available in all areas. Parents with limited English skills sometimes had difficulty accessing these offers, as did some families. could not afford the service even at a discount.

In the current project, LA Unified has agreed on massive reduced rates with AT&T and Charter Communications. Between them, the two vendors should be able to cover the entire geography of LA Unified. Depending on the location and bandwidth needs, LA Unified will pay approximately $ 15 to $ 65 per month per family. Most families already have a cable connection and they connect to a digital box. But the installation is also available, if needed, at a cost chosen by the district, which could be about $ 300, said District Information Director Soheil Catal.

During distance learning, ninth-grader Ethan Ortega, who was then in high school, had problems with capacity. His brother also needed Wi-Fi for school, and his parents needed to be online to work.

“In most cases, many people would use Wi-Fi,” Ethan said. “And because of that I would have a lot of worries, especially with school classes. We didn’t even have a solution for that. Because our ISP was already the best we could get. ”

An independent study shows that more people in California have a high-speed connection than ever before – nearly 91% of families have high-speed Internet access. the latest results of a nationwide poll released by USC and California Foundation for New Technology.

However, 16% of low-income residents do not connect, and 10% depend on smartphones that provide low connectivity to perform tasks such as school classes or attending lessons online.

California has the largest number of people living in poverty of all states, despite the world’s fifth-largest economy. Income is a key factor in determining a family’s access to the Internet, according to a USC report: Twenty-nine percent of families earning less than $ 40,000 a year do not have an Internet connection or have access only through smartphone.

The digital divide is a problem in both urban and rural areas: nineteen percent of Los Angeles County and 20 percent of Central Valley families either have no connection or rely on smartphones. Nearly a quarter of Hispanics do not connect to or use smartphones, compared to 5% of white people. Digital inequality is greatest among Hispanics, who speak only Spanish – 25% have no connection and 10% use smartphones.

The gap became acute in the spotlight during distance learning, when an Internet connection was the only way to access live instruction.

Before, during and after the pandemic, “Internet access is a tool for transformation,” said school board member Monica Garcia. “It’s over: can we create a permanent solution for every home to have a powerful learning tool?”

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