MB Images/shutterstock

MB Images/shutterstock

COVID-19 has shown that even within major metropolitan areas, there are significant gaps among families who own computers and are connected to the Internet, resulting in a scramble to bridge the digital divide for schools and students ill-equipped to transition to remote learning. Community foundations have redirected their education grantmaking to help narrow the gap.

Over 50 million children are now learning remotely and the ramifications have been keenly felt. Community foundations have had to step into new roles as emergency responders. Long attuned to the pressures faced by local school districts and nonprofits to serve low-income families, community foundations are contending with an even greater sense of urgency as the pandemic has caused the economy to tailspin, resulting in millions of jobs lost. Requests for basic needs to keep families afloat have exploded. The community foundations interviewed here have changed their education giving strategies, funding efforts they normally would not—such as meal distribution for students and their families or providing computers and Internet access for children to log onto remote learning platforms.

The California Community Foundation (CCF), based in Los Angeles, has awarded $3.5 million in grants since March through the COVID-19 LA County Response Fund, which has raised $17.5 million in total. Of that figure, nearly $1 million has been directed to local school districts and nonprofits serving youths. Although CCF has been quick, like other community funders across the nation, to raise and distribute money to grantees, the unmet needs of nonprofits, says Efrain Escobedo, the fund’s vice president of education and immigration, is akin to a tidal wave. 

“Even though we’ve pushed these grants through, we still have about 80 requests totaling over $5 million that are pending that we need to figure out whether we will be able to raise resources to support.” 

However much the California Community Foundation and its colleagues nationwide can fundraise, Escobedo says, it will not be enough to support the requests continuing to pour in.

“This will far outstrip any lift philanthropy can do.”

Far Behind

"An average of 36.5% of students in our 23-county area is estimated to be without devices,” says Lita Pardi, interim vice president for community at the Community Foundation for Greater Atlanta, citing information from the Georgia Department of Education based on the 2018-2019 academic year. "And we know, though, that in some districts that need is as high as 93%."

The foundation has awarded $200,000 to PowerMyLearning, an education technology nonprofit that provides local school districts with devices, WiFi access, and digital content to help homeless students. The foundation also directed $100,000 to KIPP Metro Atlanta Schools to provide laptops, Internet access, IT support, digital curricula, and emergency funding for families of students and alumni. KIPP received COVID-19 emergency support from neither Fulton County Schools nor Atlanta Public Schools, so it turned to the foundation for financial help. Another grant of $75,000 went to Marietta City Schools towards the cost of loaning computers and purchasing six months of WiFi connectivity for 700 students.

Overall, the foundation has committed $2.2 million for children’s educational needs or to provide food for students and families—a sizable slice of the nearly $12 million it has helped raise for the Greater Atlanta COVID-19 Response and Recovery Fund.

Pardi is concerned about the adverse toll the pandemic will take on low-income students’ academic progress, referring to another crisis that upended a local educational system. “We know from research that came out after Hurricane Katrina that students who go for a long period of time being out of school, even if they have distance learning, they’re going to be so far behind,” she says. “It’s really important for us to think about what can be done better through school or through providers of after-school programs and summer programs for kids.”

The Silicon Valley Community Foundation (SVCF), which serves San Mateo and Santa Clara Counties, in California, has re-centered its education grantmaking to respond to COVID-19. It is prioritizing social and emotional health and wellness support for students, families, and staff; remote learning, including equipment, IT support, and training for teachers and staff; emergency child care centers to help people who cannot work from home; nutrition services, and family engagement. SVCF has committed $1 million to education grants, matched by the biotechnology company Genentech. Overall, the foundation has given $95 million to COVID-19 relief.

The predominance of technology companies in the region has not made it immune to the digital divide, says Michelle Sioson Hyman, deputy director of SVCF’s Center for Early Learning. 

“In San Jose, 95,000 residents lack internet access,” she says, a figure accounting for nearly 10 percent of the city’s approximately one million residents. “And then 55% of low-income households are also unconnected—when you think about that, this is before the crisis.”

But just connecting families to hardware is insufficient, says Hyman. Funders should be mindful of factoring in the costs of upkeep. She worries that devices schools lend to students are out of date.

“A lot of school districts said that they had these devices but then when we drilled down and asked, a lot of them were either broken or they were so old, they thought they couldn’t operate the latest software,” she says. “When we do donate funding or donate devices, how do we make sure that we think about maintenance costs and upgrades?”

Weak Signals (or None)

Depending on where students and families are located, the provision of technology cannot overcome poor infrastructure. Students in rural areas or who live in towns with weak connectivity face additional hurdles. For example, school districts in these areas can lack vendor partnerships that enable them to buy high volumes of devices at a discount because they do not have the enrollment numbers of urban districts.

Janet Lopez, senior program officer for education at Rose Community Foundation, in Denver, says most school districts in Colorado do not have vendor partnerships, the most notable exception being Denver Public Schools. Additionally, the WiFi strength of the Xfinity broadband service of Comcast varies according to location, most affecting poor families.

“Housing affordability has pushed huge numbers of communities of color and low-income people into the suburbs,” says Lopez. The school districts of these families are more likely to have the most difficulty transitioning to remote learning. Rose Community Foundation has awarded $90,000 to six local school districts and the Colorado Department of Higher Education for technology needs and to address food insecurity. In total, it has awarded over $1.5 million in grants to 120 nonprofits thus far.

The Oregon Community Foundation (OCF), which operates offices throughout the state, is well-acquainted with the challenges of supporting families outside of urban areas. Approximately 35% of Oregon’s residents live in rural and frontier communities. Frontier areas are defined as counties with six or fewer people per square mile. OCF is exploring how to support hot spots for rural and homeless students as part of its efforts to increase families’ access to technology, but the foundation recognizes the limits of the state’s rural infrastructure, says Belle Cantor, its program officer for education. 

"We made a grant to a school district that’s in a frontier designated community, so teachers could hand deliver, drive the 30 to 50 miles out to their students’ homes to deliver [schoolwork] packets as well as food,” she says. “Those families, there are no options for them to be digitally connected. And their families often don’t have the money or gas to get into town." 

Thus far, OCR has raised over $13 million through its Oregon Recovery Community Fund. There is no shortage of requests, Cantor says, and OCF has been overwhelmed by the demand.

"We have received more applications in three weeks than we normally receive in an entire year."

“Just Disappeared”

The New York Community Trust has raised more than $95 million for its NYC COVID-19 Response & Impact Fund. Shawn Morehead, the trust’s vice president for grants, says it is getting “a fair number” of requests to develop online content for core academic subjects as well as arts education. It has made grants to Urban Assembly, a network of middle schools and high schools, to provide students hardware, and Teaching Matters, a content developer that helps teachers identify and use quality online resources.

New York City Public Schools has lent 300,000 Internet-enabled iPads to students. A pressing need expressed by the trust’s grantees is keeping high school students on track to earn their diplomas. “We are hearing from multiple nonprofits that they want to supplement them with hard hardware that facilitates the type of remote learning they’re doing as opposed to the iPads, and also just trying to get it more quickly, particularly into the hands of high school students where the stakes are higher in terms of credit accumulation for graduation,” Morehead says.

Unfortunately, even if grantees do manage to connect families to hardware and the Internet, that does not mean learning is taking place. Valerie Cuevas, senior program officer for education at the California Community Foundation, says thousands of students in Los Angeles have gone virtually missing since schools closed in mid-March.

“There’s a whole set of kids that have just disappeared,” she says. “Their teachers are having difficulty making contact with them. They haven’t checked in. You’re able to tell if they haven’t.” According to a Los Angeles Times article, about 15,000 high-school students in the Los Angeles Unified School District, the nation’s second-largest, have been absent and more than 40,000 have not made daily contact with their teachers. Theories as to why—weak WiFI signals, not enough devices, family instability, students having to take care of younger siblings—abound. Cuevas says one area she would like to see proposed is how to better involve parents in the abrupt shift to online education.

“The training for parents on how to monitor distance learning, how to support their students, it’s just not there,” she says.

Equity and Other Considerations

With a flood of applications to review and not enough money to fund them all, community foundations are doubling down on their commitments to achieve diversity in their grant pools.

"We are really staying true to our equity lens when we’re looking at these grants,” says Cantor, of the Oregon Community Foundation. “Who are those most highly impacted by this? And really using that lens to screen across the board no matter what the subject matter is. So that’s often families of color, rural families, low-income families, and other populations that have additional barriers to supports and services."

The New York Community Trust and the Community Foundation for Greater Atlanta both prioritize funding organizations led by people of color and smaller and midsize groups. For the trust, groups located in the outer boroughs of the city, in particular the Bronx and Queens, receive additional consideration.

The Silicon Valley Community Foundation and the California Community Foundation are thinking of ways to draw potential grantees and partners not traditionally associated with education.

“A lot of times education philanthropy is very sector-specific,” says Sioson Hyman, of SVCF. “A crisis like this is showing that if we’re trying to support children, teacher, and family well-being, then we need to think outside of the education sector. We need to look at how all of the other systems are working together.”

For CCF, a heavy part of its focus is immigrants. L.A. County is home to over one million immigrants, many ineligible to receive any economic relief packages from the federal government because of their immigration status. Two-thirds of these residents, the foundation says, have children who are U.S. citizens. CCF’s challenge is to how to reach out to immigrant families regarding the shift to online learning.

“Are we pulling the right folks to the table? How do you make distance learning accessible?,” Escboedo says. “We have examples of successful partners that haven’t been traditional partners to K-12. For example, ethnic media—Spanish language media, broadcast media—as a mechanism.”

Trying to Look Ahead

COVID-19 presents a steep learning curve for community foundations, sparking more questions than answers. Perhaps the only certainty is that their work on education, along with their grantees’, will be more challenging after the pandemic. 

“Many of the nonprofits we’re working with, as resilient as they are, will be very wounded in terms of the business side of things and what they’ll be able to do,” Escobedo says. “Compounding that is a full expectation that this is not going to go perfectly and it’s not going to be a pivot that produces what were already not ideal results in our public education system. What organizations will be dealing with, in addition to their own operational realities, are youth and families with a more complicated spectrum of need.”

As community foundations cautiously try to map out the next two to three months, knowing dwindling state revenues will lead to large budget shortfalls, especially for schools, issues outside of core academics surface. Maybe most worrisome is how the precarious states of families’ finances and health may harm children’s mental health. 

“Education philanthropy has been more and more recognizing in recent years the importance of social and emotional learning,” Morehead says. “And I think that is the hardest piece to figure out how to translate into the remote environment,” says Morehead.

Months of physical isolation away from friends, coupled with seeing their families under duress, is already causing stress and anxiety for children. Measuring their well-being across education, housing, and health will be critical, says Sioson Hyman. 

“When we think about recovery, how do we track that work across the silos and systems?”

The crisis has made long-existing inequalities harder to ignore in just a span of weeks, doing what years of education advocacy campaigns could not. 

“We talk about the fact that so many of the issues we’re seeing right now in our community right now are not new issues,” says Pardi. “It’s exacerbating a lot of issues that probably stem from the 2008 recession and the fact that there wasn’t enough done then to address some of these inequities.”

Funders are leery of a return to normalcy. Now that millions of families across all income levels are gaining firsthand knowledge of schools’ limited resources, and the hard work of teachers, there is hope that the COVID-19 pandemic leads to heightened awareness of the inequalities prevalent in public education.

“Everyone is underserved right now,” says Valerie Cuevas. “How do we translate that awareness, to now utilize that energy positively to advocate for all kids?”

Share with cohorts