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Digital Divide WCCUSD

WCCUSD bridges digital divide with at-home internet access for students

on December 13, 2021

Julia Brady, an English teacher at Pinole Valley High School, has seen the impact that a lack of stable internet access can have on students. 

She recalled a student a few years ago who couldn’t do an online assignment because their family decided to pay for emergency dental work instead of the internet that month.

That student’s family is among many for whom Wi-Fi is a luxury. Almost 2 million households with children across the state lack consistent internet access, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. School leaders say a lack of internet access can lead to achievement gaps between those who have and those who do not have it.

“A lot of times, students are not good at reporting whether or not they’re having internet difficulties,” Brady said. “That has been an issue for us, where they’ll just not tell us that they don’t have strong internet at home.”

Those problems worsened during the pandemic when students were forced into distance learning as schools went virtual for more than a year. In response, the West Contra Costa Unified School District’s board passed the Digital Divide Resolution in August 2020, providing free and stable internet access. 

The district paid for hot spots with federal money it received through the Emergency Connectivity Fund, a $7 billion program to provide students and teachers nationwide with the technology necessary to stay connected. 

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Tracey Logan, WCCUSD’s chief technology officer, said the district has short-term and long-term plans to ensure that all of its 26,683 students have Wi-Fi access. In the short-term, the district plans to create hot spots in certain neighborhoods and has put in 6,843 so far. 

“Any student whose parent self-identifies as not having reliable home internet is able to get a hot spot through us,” Logan said. 

To reach its long-term goal of internet for all, the district created a community Wi-Fi project called WCC EdConnect, in partnership with the cities of Richmond and San Pablo. In two neighborhoods where there is a great need for reliable internet access, the district will partner with a provider to install wireless technology on light poles. If that meets the need, WCCUSD will expand the plan to every community in the district. 

During WCCUSD’s Oct. 6 school board meeting, trustees agreed to apply for a second round of Emergency Connectivity Fund money. 

WCCUSD so far has received $3.971 million. It has paid for 1,000 Acer Chromebooks for elementary students, 300 laptops for staff, and 12,000 hot spots for students. The second round would provide 50 laptops for staff, 4,000 HP Chromebooks for secondary students, and 5,500 Acer Chromebooks for elementary students.

When the pandemic hit, Chromebooks had already been provided to every student in the district at a cost of about $350 per student. 

“I wasn’t worried about kids having access to devices at home,” Brady said. “I was worried they didn’t have internet, and I was worried that their computer was broken and they never fixed it. ” 

Digital Divide WCCUSD
West Contra Costa Unified School District students using Chromebooks in the classroom (Courtesy of WCCUSD)

LaResha Martin, WCCUSD’s chief academic officer and associate superintendent, ideally would like each student to have two devices, one for home and one for school. It’s imperative during the pandemic for students to have technology at home, she said, “so that they’re not lugging Chromebooks and iPads back and forth.”

Martin and others say a key factor in providing these resources is making sure children and their parents have digital literacy. The Pew Research Center found in an April survey that since the pandemic began, 30% of U.S. parents said they had difficulty helping their children use technology or the internet. 

“Knowing how to use those tools is not something to be taken for granted, and it’s a place where it requires a lot of time and hands-on support,” Logan said. 

WCCUSD provided live Zoom sessions for parents to learn how to use some of the websites and technology students use. It also created a digital backpack on how to use some tools and technologies. 

The district also is looking to partner with outside organizations that can provide the tools and support needed to increase digital literacy. 

“I think we’ve done a lot in the area of access and do have a road map for long-term access needs,” Logan said. “But that digital literacy piece is so key, and it’s really going to take the whole village.”

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