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In California, 1 million kids lacked the equipment they needed to learn remotely at the beginning of the pandemic. Six months later, many still do.

Photo: Annie Spratt/Unsplash
Big Tech spent millions to close California’s digital divide this year. It’s hardly making a dent.
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Big Tech spent millions to close California’s digital divide this year. It’s hardly making a dent.

Getting tech billionaires to open their wallets was easy. Getting kids connected is the bigger challenge.

In the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, California estimated that 1 million of its 6.2 million school kids didn't have the equipment they needed for virtual learning, prompting leaders from across the tech industry to immediately open their wallets to help.

Through their philanthropic organizations, billionaires including Jack Dorsey, John and Ann Doerr, and Mark Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan, wrote million-dollar checks to the state's Bridging the Digital Divide Fund, which has since amassed $18.3 million in donations. Dorsey spent another $10 million to cover the cost of laptops and internet access for every student who needs it in Oakland. His Twitter co-founder Ev Williams and his wife, Sara, also kicked in $10 million to San Francisco schools. Companies including Apple, Google, Amazon and a range of internet service providers donated tablets, Chromebooks, hot spots, Wi-Fi extenders and months of free home broadband to students in need. Apple and T-Mobile struck a deal to provide districts discounted iPads for up to 1 million students before the end of the year. Meanwhile, the state has set aside $5.3 billion in government funding for districts to spend on devices and other necessities.

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But six months later, with school back in session, only a fraction of the devices those contributions were supposed to purchase are actually in students' hands. Amassing these donations, it turns out, was the easy part. Thanks to supply chain issues, inequity in existing infrastructure and even President Trump's geopolitics, actually procuring, distributing and putting the devices to use has been far more complicated. Equally challenging: Tracking what progress has been made at all. That's true in California and even more true across the U.S. as a whole.

"At this time, we do not have a precise estimate of outstanding need that remains," said Cynthia Butler, public information officer for the California Department of Education. "Based on ongoing dialogue with school districts, vendors and manufacturers, it is possible that hundreds of thousands of students still lack the technology needed to connect."

Hardware is hard

To date, the California Department of Education says it's used philanthropic donations to deliver 73,065 computing devices and 100,000 hot spots to school districts across the state. But the California Department of Education Foundation, a nonprofit that is overseeing monetary donations, says it's still waiting on a shipment of 20,000 Chromebooks that have been backordered for months. Meanwhile, in Oakland, where officials have the funding to equip every student in need with hot spots and Chromebooks to keep, only about two-thirds of the Chromebooks and hot spots that have been ordered have actually been distributed. Even in Los Angeles, which struck a $100 million deal with Verizon early on in the pandemic to provide unlimited internet access to every kid who doesn't have it at home, a lack of broadband infrastructure in poor neighborhoods has rendered the hot spots some students have received effectively useless.

"The scale at which they're doing things is hardly making a dent," Evan Marwell, founder and CEO of the nonprofit EducationSuperHighway, said of tech's philanthropic contributions.

According to the CDE Foundation, an August survey conducted by the Department of Education received responses from just a quarter of all the school districts, though it's unclear why. Even so, those districts still reported needing 275,000 devices and 80,000 hot spots.

"On balance, there's still plenty of need out there," said Jessica Howard, CEO of the CDE Foundation.

Education advocates see a number of reasons for the persistent gap, starting with manufacturing delays. The spike in demand for devices coupled with global supply chain disruptions caused by the virus has been a disastrous combination. After receiving donations from both Dorsey and Zynga founder Mark Pincus, Oakland Unified School District ordered 25,000 laptops in early June, which students would be able to keep. But John Sasaki, the district's director of communications, said the devices only started arriving in early August. So far, Oakland has distributed around 15,300 of the new laptops and 7,000 of the 10,000 new hot spots it ordered. Sasaki said the rest of the students without devices have been given loaner laptops and hot spots from the district, while they wait out the backlog. "We're just talking about us as one school district," Sasaki said. "How many millions of computers were ordered all at the same time?"

That's not the only reason for the delays. As the Associated Press recently reported, the situation was exacerbated in July when the U.S. sanctioned a number of Chinese companies linked to human rights abuses against the country's Uighur population, imposing new licensing restrictions on them. That list included some companies involved in manufacturing laptops, including from Lenovo, leading to a dramatic slowdown in deliveries.

"Things kind of came to a standstill over the summer," said Wendy Dougherty, chief operating officer of the CDE Foundation, which placed a bulk order for Lenovo laptops in the spring that has yet to be completed. "It became pretty evident nothing was going to happen. It was going to take six to eight weeks more than anyone anticipated to see that product."

Connectivity redlining

Once students do receive devices, issues still arise. Advocates say students are receiving hot spots only to find that they live in a dead zone or that the devices don't have the bandwidth to support Zoom. "If the parent is working at home and multiple siblings are there all at once, there's not enough bandwidth," said Elmer Roldan, executive director of Communities in Schools of Los Angeles, one of several nonprofits working to close the digital divide in the city. "It's turning into a challenge where students are being marked absent."

Despite celebratory statements from the city's superintendent declaring that upwards of 96% of students in Los Angeles have connected with their teachers online, families report a different reality. One recent survey of LA families found that white students were three times more likely than Black and Latino students to actually receive virtual instruction every day.

Those discrepancies have a lot to do with internet service providers' unequal approach to serving communities of color, said Unai Montes-Irueste, a former public school teacher and current communications director for the United Ways of California. Montes-Irueste points to research that's shown that areas of California that were historically redlined now have lower than average internet speeds and rates of internet adoption. "ISPs have not created and invested in that infrastructure anywhere that it wasn't going to be convenient to them in terms of their profit margins," said Montes-Irueste.

When the COVID-19 crisis hit, the Federal Communications Commission praised ISPs for their generosity, noting how Comcast, AT&T, Charter and others gave away several months of free service to low-income households and students. Comcast has also partnered with 70 school districts across the country, including Sacramento, San Francisco and Oakland, to offer the Internet Essentials plan to their students. But to Montes-Irueste, these offers only tell part of the story. In practice, he says, even eligible families have struggled to get connected through these promotions, sometimes through lack of awareness, but also because they can end up getting upsold or hit with hidden fees unexpectedly.

Because the offers only apply to new customers, Montes-Irueste says they're also not helping the families who previously had broadband subscriptions, but have been laid off during the pandemic and are now struggling to afford it. Comcast's Internet Essentials program, for one, requires that applicants haven't had a subscription with the company in the last 90 days.

"They're the only ones responsible for the policies they've created and put in front of consumers," Montes-Irueste said of ISPs. "Every single time I see them get more press and more PR, it is insane-making to me because students are suffering."

Even once students do have connectivity and devices, Roldan says the families he works with have run into other issues. One parent his organization serves doesn't know how to read or write, leaving it to his third-grader to figure out how to troubleshoot and set up his online learning platform. Something as simple as not having headphones can also be an obstacle for students living in small, crowded spaces. Roldan said Communities in Schools of LA collected 2,000 headphones in early March, including donations from Sony, Corsair and Apple.

Billionaires in the backyard

This isn't to say that the donations from tech leaders and companies have done no good at all. As slow as progress has been, Sasaki of Oakland Unified School District says the COVID-19 crisis has dramatically expedited the timeline for getting students in his district connected at home. The digital divide was hardly an undiscovered phenomenon before the pandemic began, but it took this crisis for the wealthy nearby tech sector to fork over funding to actually close it. "I suppose one of the fringe benefits, if you want to call it that, is really highlighting this issue and giving us the impetus to close the digital divide once and for all," Sasaki said.

At least, it's been helping close it in Oakland, which has about 25,000 students in need of devices and connectivity. But across the country, research estimates anywhere from 10 million to 15 million kids are still waiting, and not all of those kids live in communities with billionaires in their backyards. States, including California, have set aside billions in funding to help, and California's governor recently signed an executive order to speed up investments in broadband across the state. But since the first stimulus bill was passed in late March, the federal government hasn't allocated any additional funding for schools. "When President Trump started beating the drum that we need to open all schools, it made it more difficult for this funding to happen," said Marwell of EducationSuperHighway. "It was viewed by many as: Why do we need this funding if we're going back to school?"

Philanthropists stepped up to try to fill in the gaps. But what's happening in California, a state absolutely bursting with philanthropic donations, only underscores the limitations of that approach. "The only way this gets solved for every student in America is if the federal government steps in," Marwell said. "Full stop."

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