County to consider plan to offer WiFi, devices to neediest South Bay families
Santa Clara County Supervisor Dave Cortese announces his proposal to provide thousands of WiFi and devices to low income families.

Santa Clara County officials on Tuesday will consider a proposal to purchase computing devices and provide internet access for the county’s 15,000 neediest families.

The proposal, authored by Supervisor Dave Cortese, calls for partnering with the county’s Office of Education on an initiative that he estimated would cost the county “a little more than $1 million,” he said during a news conference Monday. If approved, it would provide 11,000 “connectivity devices,” like hotspots, and 14,000 devices — such as laptops, phones and tablets — to local families.

Education advocates and local leaders have said the digital divide between children with internet and access to technology and those without will worsen achievement gaps and set some children behind their classmates during the pandemic. There is no clear timeline for when students will return to school currently.

“We realize today that there’s no way to get around this problem other than to close these digital inclusion gaps,” Cortese said, adding that the county should help provide such technology with an emphasis on offering wireless internet coverage.

Santa Clara County Office of Education has identified the families that would benefit from the proposal, including those that rely on social services, like MediCal, CalFresh and CalWORKS, WIC and foster families.

The vision, announced Monday, was supported by Mary Ann Dewan, county superintendent of schools. She urged more partnerships across the region.

“We cannot rely on school-by-school or district-by-district Band-Aid solutions,” she said. “We need to address these barriers together and invest in our shared and overlapping roles with children and families.”

The effort comes after San Jose leaders last month agreed to fast track an initiative to provide free WiFi to 40,000 residents on the city’s east side.

“We were going to move rather slowly, but this crisis has created some promptness for us, and so we really can’t wait for our original plan, which is 10 years,” said Councilmember Sylvia Arenas, who represents part of the city’s east side.

In San Jose alone, about 8,574 students lack reliable connectivity to the internet and 11,600 need devices to allow them to participate in online learning, according to county data.

City officials last week approved a $1.5 million plan to work with AT&T, Verizon and Mobilitie to put 4,200 small cell wireless network antennas on street light poles to ensure all students in the city could access the internet. Cortese’s proposal also recommends working with San Jose to address internet “dead zones” throughout the city once the county’s neediest families have received technology.

In the meantime, the proposal set to be heard this week by the county’s Board of Supervisors would be a near-term effort that could alleviate the burden on already-stretched school districts across the county, said Maimona Afzal Berta, Franklin-McKinley School District Board trustee.

“School districts have scrambled to pull together internet access and devices, but ultimately there are still thousands of families across Santa Clara County without the access to the internet that they need,” she said. “The budgetary impacts of supporting data plans for our families is also not financially sustainable for school districts … we need both county and city collaboration and support.”

As for funding the program, Cortese acknowledged that money is expected to be tight for the county, just as it is for cities across the region. His proposal asks county officials to help find ways to secure funding.

While the county could front the costs, he is optimistic the money could be recouped later through other funders, grants or stimulus payments.

“As general fund dollars become a little bit more scarce in the near future, this is a kind of program that can still go forward because there are other earmarked funds … that we can use that don’t impact our general fund,” he said. “That’ll be the plan.”

Contact Janice Bitters at [email protected] or follow @JaniceBitters on Twitter.

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