Funk: COVID-19 worsens the digital divide in San Jose
The San Jose City Council on Nov. 10 dedicated 45% of Measure E funds to providing permanent supportive housing for extremely low-income families.

Districts across the state have been forced to move to distance learning from physical classroom, creating costs, shifts in structure, training and mindset. The unknown is always the infrastructure at home.

Our classrooms are modern, well lit, safe and equipped with power and robust internet connections. Our students’ homes are too often not equipped to be adequate learning spaces. The digital divide further increases the persistent achievement gap that exists in schools that serve a large population of students of color and students living in poverty. These underserved and under-resourced communities are being hit the hardest by the novel coronavirus.

In February, I wrote a San José Spotlight column on the digital divide in East San Jose and the shift in teaching and learning that is required to help our students prepare for the digital world.

Now, COVID-19 has effectively shut down schools across the nation for the remainder of the school year and for summer school. In fact, there is some concern as to whether schools will open in the fall if social distancing cannot be adequately implemented and if statewide testing for the virus is not fully available. Until a vaccine is developed, schools will have to deal with a new normal for educating students.

Even though we are tasked with preparing our students to be active community members, public schools are least prepared for this requirement because, as a state and a nation, we do not fund technology in schools. In fact, the last large competitive grant the state funded for technology was in the late 1990s.

Imagine being a tech company in Silicon Valley running on equipment and access to broadband that is more than 15 years old.

Schools across the city and county have made a herculean effort to meet this crisis head-on.

Getting laptops or Chromebooks in the hands of students has been an easier task. Making sure they have Wi-Fi and the bandwidth to meet the needs of distance learning is a whole other challenge. School districts are ordering hotspots, smartphones and other access points to try and meet this demand. They are using general funds to try to make this happen. This is a stop-gap measure, not a comprehensive, complete nor sustainable funding model.

Cellphone and internet providers are enjoying a windfall during this crisis on the backs of public school districts in a time of a global pandemic. While some organizations began programs to help students with access (such as Sprint’s 1 Million Project), they fall short in their ability to provide devices, bandwidth and sustainability.

The Community Wireless Project, a partnership between the city of San Jose and East Side Union High School District, has been a centerpiece of the mayor’s office’s plan to help with digital inclusion in San Jose. Together, we are building one of the nation’s first school district-funded municipal Wi-Fi infrastructures, bringing free broadband access to thousands of district families and tens of thousands of residents in East Side.

We completed the first leg of the project last year in the James Lick neighborhood. The William C. Overfelt neighborhood will be completed by Independence Day, followed by the Yerba Buena High School neighborhood in late fall. This installation will serve three large communities in excess of 40,000 people. We must provide students the tools to continue to learn and grow. The added benefit is that parents and community members can also use the resources to grow and learn.

It will cost $6.5 million to $7 million to complete the East Side. We would then need to work on the schools in San Jose Unified and Campbell Districts. It has taken seven years to get to this stage of our collaborative work.

We can be the largest city in the United States that offers free broadband access to the community, but we cannot wait and hope for a white knight. We have a viable, useful solution that works.

The costs and technology are known, the installation and implementation have multiple benefits for community members, the city and schools. We need partners contributing to and supporting the completion of this endeavor to move to our new future.

We’ll need financial support from each of the feeder districts in the East Side Alliance, industry and Santa Clara County. We also need the city to be much more aggressive with pushing this project forward. There is no reason we cannot be rolling out this program to Overfelt and Yerba Buena at the same time and every reason to accelerate access to the rest of the city.

COVID-19 is creating a new norm. Distance learning will be more of a hybrid approach to how our schools operate for the next year and beyond. The longer we continue to create opportunity gaps in digital access, the greater impact there will be with educational outcomes and disparities. We must solve the digital divide immediately and in a cost-effective manner. We have that roadmap.

Our partnership with the city will be the model for the nation. It is my hope that it becomes the model in the next six months and not in the next seven years. We can conquer the digital divide in San Jose together. Let’s get it done.

San José Spotlight columnist Chris Funk is the superintendent of the East Side Union High School District. His columns appear every third Monday of the month. Contact Chris at [email protected] or follow @chrisfunksupt on Twitter.

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