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Sonoma County educators: Internet connectivity is crucial for equity

Internet access has emerged as an education rights issue in Sonoma County because students cannot connect with their schools and teachers without it.|

When the coronavirus forced approximately 70,000 Sonoma County schoolchildren off school campuses and into virtual classrooms in March, the stresses were immediately apparent.

Teachers used to standing in front of a classroom of kids struggled to convey concepts via video conferences. Parents struggled to balance work and home-teaching duties. And students struggled to figure out a new way of learning, removed from their friends and classmates and far from their teachers.

Underlying all of those issues was the need for every student to have access to a steady and consistent internet connection. And not every student has it.

“It is shameful that in a county as prosperous as ours that we have families that struggle to get internet access,” Sonoma Valley Unified School District Superintendent Socorro Shiels said.

Shiels, along with superintendents Diann Kitamura and Amy Jones-Kerr from Santa Rosa City Schools and Roseland, respectively, were panelists Thursday night in a virtual community discussion on equity issues that have been exacerbated by the pandemic and the move to distance learning. The forum was hosted by Los Cien, a nonprofit Latino leadership group.

Santa Rosa City Schools, the county’s largest district with approximately 15,500 students, has offered Chromebooks to every student in the district, Kitamura said. In addition to 2,500 internet hot spots doled out last spring and this fall, the district gave out an additional 250 in a different network “because of the size of the district, some don’t work in different areas,” she said.

But even those efforts can be thwarted by some students’ realities, Jones-Kerr said. In Roseland, 9 out of 10 students qualify for a free or reduced-price lunch and many did not have adequate technology and internet access when the pandemic struck, she said.

Even after the district supplied a Chromebook to every student who needed one, issues would still crop up — usually related to internet connectivity, she said.

"A family might have it but … it could be spotty. They could have three families living in a home and they are all trying to log on,“ she said. ”And you can imagine, when you have Zoom you have a teacher with 24 students ... and they are all trying to Zoom together and you have one child where it’s spotty; that affects everyone’s learning let alone this poor child not able to access as they should.“

The big goal, at least according to Shiels?

“To make the internet a commodity, like electricity and water. Everyone should have it,“ she said. ”The money being made on internet access, we need to put a stop to that."

Internet access has emerged as an education rights issue because students cannot connect with their schools and teachers without it. And students from low-income and Latino households are more likely to lack internet connectivity than their peers, panelists said Thursday.

As stopgap measures, superintendents suggested converting school buses — none are being used during the pandemic — as mobile internet access points. Rachel Icaza, Sonoma County Library education initiatives librarian, another panelist, encouraged families to park next to any library branch and use that Wi-Fi.

Shiels encouraged local business leaders to create pop-up internet cafes where students can access high-speed connections at an outside table for an hour or two.

"Internet access does seem like it should be a simple fix and yet we have many people where internet isn’t fast enough, strong enough, cheap enough, to access and that does seem like a problem we should be able to solve,“ Shiels said.

The discussion comes in the wake of a photo that went viral of two elementary-aged students sitting on the ground outside of a fast-food restaurant in Salinas in order to get free Wi-Fi access. Salinas, where nearly 8 in 10 elementary-aged students qualify for a free or reduced-price lunch, is about an hour south of Silicon Valley, the tech capital of the world.

A campaign to raise funds for the girls’ family had surpassed $146,200 by Friday afternoon.

Panelists pointed to a similar disconnect locally. Sonoma County, despite its vast wealth and resources, has wide swaths of poverty. Forty-five percent of the county’s nearly 70,000 school kids qualify for a free or reduced-price lunch.

Disparities and systemic inequities have come to the fore since the pandemic forced students to learn from home in March, educators said Thursday.

“They just become that much more visible when we have a natural disaster, and the pandemic is no different,” Shiels said.

You can reach Staff Writer Kerry Benefield at 707-526-8671 or kerry.benefield@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @benefield.

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