San Jose City Hall. File photo.
San Jose City Hall is pictured in this file photo.

As part of an effort to expand broadband access across the city, San Jose lawmakers on Tuesday unanimously approved an update to a plan that will provide every student with digital tools and connectivity.

Already struggling to close the digital divide, city leaders worry the coronavirus pandemic will exacerbate inequity among students at a time that schools have transitioned to online learning. That’s why the city’s digital inclusion strategy will prioritize providing all students across San Jose with a computer, broadband access and digital literacy.

“My district has a lot of digital deserts,” said Councilmember Maya Esparza, who represents parts of East San Jose. “We have kids that were already behind, that keep getting behind. These kids who are already behind desperately need this in order to stand a chance — we’re just trying to give our kids a chance.”

To implement the strategy, the city is partnering with AT&T, Verizon and Mobilitie to invest in 4,200 small cell wireless network antennas on streetlight poles. The plan will cost $1.5 million.

“We know that there is a great need,” San Jose Library Director Jill Bourne said. “If access points could be installed on school buildings, near parking spots or library buildings, that could be connected… to the existing school network to provide reliable WiFi access to the students and the community. This is a creative solution that our innovation team has started to explore.”

A San José Spotlight report last month examined how school districts across Santa Clara County are handling the transition to distance learning, determining that school districts already facing achievement gaps were struggling more than ever.

County officials said 8,574 students in San Jose lack connectivity and are in need of either in-home internet or a WiFi hotspot to participate in distance learning, while 11,600 students also need a device such as a Chromebook, iPad or computer for their online classes.

City leaders are in the midst of identifying where coverage is needed. Bourne said many without access live in low network coverage areas where additional infrastructure is needed or are low-income households that cannot afford internet access.

San Jose lawmakers plan on sending a letter to internet service providers requesting companies reduce barriers to access and extend the interim free internet service granted during the coronavirus pandemic, through July 31.

As part of that request, officials hope internet providers, such as Comcast, will also loosen requirements to provide free internet to households who qualify for the National School Lunch Program. If Comcast agrees, low-income families will not have to provide Comcast with a letter from the school verifying they’re enrolled in the school lunch program.

“We write to request that you adjust your offerings to ensure that the most digitally-disadvantaged households in San Jose are able to continue their education through distance learning, to sustain remote work and to continue receiving essential medical care from home,” Mayor Sam Liccardo wrote in the letter.

City officials are also developing a map to track demographic data on poverty and households without internet or digital tools.

San José Learns, an after school program, provides some elementary school students with extended learning opportunities. Due to school closures, city leaders want school districts to restructure the program to invest in device access and connectivity solutions for their students.

To help fund the city’s extensive wireless network plan, Bourne said the city will leverage CARES Act funds to purchase internet services, computers and hotspot devices.

State of emergency 

Also on Tuesday, the City Council unanimously extended the city’s local emergency declaration, a move that allows the city to receive state funds and other emergency resources during the coronavirus pandemic.

City officials worry coronavirus cases and deaths will “likely increase” once the shelter-in-place order lifts and expect the emergency to continue until a vaccine is developed. But they do not expect a vaccine to become widely available for another year and a half, which means the city will need to continue leveraging emergency resources.

City Manager Dave Sykes said the city will tackle three critical challenges once the order lifts — a spike in unemployment and economic hardship, public health concerns and an economic downturn.

The extended emergency will also allow the city to qualify for additional state and federal funds, exercise “extraordinary police powers” such as mandated evacuations and implement emergency actions.

The city will add new steps for reopening businesses, starting with a limited reopening of some businesses and city services while slowly progressing to a full reopening once a vaccine is developed.

The state of emergency will be in effect for an additional 60 days with an option to extend.

Contact Nadia Lopez at [email protected] or follow @n_llopez on Twitter.

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