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Over the past seven months, philanthropists and private companies have been working in a unique partnership with California state education officials to provide students access to computers and high-speed internet during the pandemic. Donors include Amazon, Apple, AT&T, the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, Craig Newmark, Google, Hewlett Packard, Jack Dorsey, Lenovo, Microsoft, Office Depot, Spring/T-Mobile, Verizon and Zoom.

Since the pandemic forced schools to shut their doors in the spring, state leaders have been scrambling to close the digital divide. In addition to the Learning Loss Mitigation Fund, which will appropriate approximately $5.3 billion in funds for schools, the state’s public and private spheres partnered to form the Californians Bridging the Digital Divide Fund (CA BDD Fund). Since its creation in March, the fund has served as a resource to provide devices, internet connectivity and digital learning support for students, teachers, and their families.

Some backers of this effort have made cash gifts; others have provided in-kind contributions. Apple and T-Mobile, for instance, are working with the California Department of Education (CDE) to provide discounted, internet-equipped iPads for up to a million students in need.

The CA BDD Fund is a joint effort between the California Department of Education (CDE), the governor’s office, the State Board of Education and the Californians Dedicated to Education Foundation (CDE Foundation)—the nonprofit private sector of the state’s Department of Education.

Inside Philanthropy has written about a number of public-private partnerships that have sprung up to help students isolated at home by the pandemic without access to online learning resources. These efforts have drawn millions of dollars from foundations, major donors and businesses around the country. But the CA BDD Fund is the largest such emergency response that we’ve seen. That’s a testament to the philanthropic wealth in California, and also to the influence of the CDE Foundation, which pulled the fund together.

The foundation “works closely with the state superintendent of public instruction and his team to enable public-private partnerships and implement solutions across the state,” according to its website. Its funders include key Bay Area philanthropies, including the Hewlett Foundation, the Heising-Simons Foundation, the S.D. Bechtel, Jr. Foundation, the Sobrato Family Foundation and the Silicon Valley Community Foundation, as well as other backers such as the Anaheim Ducks Hockey Club, Chevron, First 5 California, KQED, and California State University.

An Urgent Scramble to Help Students

Earlier this year, as the pandemic shut down schools across the state, California State Superintendent of Public Education Tony Thurmond called on businesses and philanthropists to contribute to the fund in order to provide technological resources to students in need.

Between March and August, the fund received over $18.3 million in in-kind donations, including more than 64,000 devices and 100,000 hotspots. More than 300 school districts (about 29% of all districts in California) have received devices and/or hotspots, with priority given to small and rural schools as well as those with the highest percentages of special education students, low-income students and English language learners.

According to CDE Foundation CEO Jessica Howard, the CA BDD Fund is meant to “facilitate the donation of devices to our students most in need.” The CDE has worked to ensure an equitable distribution of resources and has been entrusted with identifying which schools have the highest need. This was done through survey responses, direct communication with school districts and county offices of education, and analyzing student family income levels and English language data, explained Howard.

“We are grateful to our state leaders for taking such quick action to establish the BDD Fund and thank the many donors who heeded their call,” said Howard. “The funds will continue to allow us the flexibility to be responsive as new needs arise. For example, we were able to quickly pivot to deliver dozens of devices and distance learning accessories to districts with schools affected by the fires.”

Millions of Students Engaged in Distance Learning

According to the California Department of Education (CDE), an estimated 97% of the state’s six million students have resumed classes this fall through distance learning. Many students, however, lack access to a computer, broadband or both.

“School may be physically closed, but class is still in session,” said Gov. Gavin Newsom in a press release. “But for class to be in session, it is imperative that California addresses the inequities in access to computers, technology tools and connectivity to ensure that online learning can, in fact, reach all of California’s children.”

The FCC has found that nearly 70% of teachers in the U.S. assign homework that requires access to high-speed internet. And while California—home to both Silicon Valley and the fifth-largest economy in the world—has made progress in closing the digital divide, internet access at home is still a problem.

“For rural households, the issue is about the high cost of building the infrastructure to deploy internet service to more remote areas,” Lloyd Levine told the University of California, Riverside, where he is a senior policy fellow. Levine is a former member of the California State Assembly and a leading expert on technology policy. “For urban and suburban households,” he added, “it’s about the costs of the service itself and of the devices needed to use it.”

Continuing Unmet Needs

As of Aug. 5, the CDE estimates that 1 million students still do not have access to a device for distance learning, a problem exacerbated by a nationwide shortage of laptops. In late September, however, the CDE announced that it was working with technology companies to make an additional 500,000 devices available for students in California.

“We cannot stop until we know we have leveled the playing field for every student in California by connecting them to the technology they need to succeed now, and in the years ahead,” Thurmond said.

The public-private partnership in California has helped millions of students in need. But while California is making significant strides in closing the digital divide, there’s still the question of what happens in other states. What happens to children in rural areas with little funding?

“We’re shifting so many government services to the internet, but we’re not necessarily making the internet more accessible to those who need it,” Levine said. “By doing that, we’re disenfranchising people and dooming them to more economic hardship.”

He added, “I’m not going out on a policy limb here; there’s a whole host of programs out there through which we’ve provided people with financial assistance for other utilities — for natural gas, for electricity, for water, for telephones.”

Maybe, Levine suggests, it’s time we do the same for broadband.

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