When theforced California schools to close in March, the West Contra Costa Unified School District knew it had a problem. Most of its 29,000 students had school-provided Google Chromebooks, but an estimated quarter of them didn’t have access to reliable internet connectivity at home — something that was vital for attending classes virtually.
Cities like Richmond and San Pablo, which make up the WCCUSD, are nothing like the tech hub of San Francisco, despite being just across the bay. About 90% of the students are Black, indigenous or people of color, or BIPOC (including 54% Latino), and many of the district’s families can’t afford home broadband connections. Students would normally cope by doing their homework in a library or restaurant offering free Wi-Fi. Another lifeline: Sprint’s charitable 1Million Project, which offered free cellular hotspots to about 1,500 WCCUSD students.
The pandemic changed everything. When the WCCUSD turned to Sprint’s program to secure 1,300 more hotspots for low-income students, it had to buy the devices for $70 apiece. Worse yet, the program would soon end because of T-Mobile’s acquisition of the carrier. The combined company’s new program, called Project 10Million, will offer free internet service for 10 million US households, but it hasn’t yet launched, leaving the district in a lurch. (T-Mobile says it’s coming “soon.”)
Over five months later, it’s back-to-school season. Classes at the WCCUSD will remain virtual for the foreseeable future, thanks to the continued spread of the coronavirus, and the district still hasn’t figured out how to fully address the digital divide, which includes an estimated bill of over $3 million to get its students online.
“It’s been really rough,” Matthew Duffy, superintendent of the WCCUSD, says in an interview. “We’re handcuffed by … how much it’s going to cost.”
WCCUSD isn’t alone. San Francisco, which earlier this month secured $10.5 million in philanthropic funding, still faces a $14.5 million shortfall to equip all students with technology access and devices this school year. California struck a deal with Apple and T-Mobile — similar to an agreement reached in New York City — to make up to 1 million discounted, cellular-connected iPads and 4G service available to schools, but the individual districts are responsible for funding the cost.