Kern County schools must overcome daunting digital divide

Coronavirus

(Photo: courtesy MGN)

U.S. schools are increasingly reliant on digital tools to teach students, and the coronavirus pandemic, which has forced thousands of schools across the country to close, has dramatically accelerated that pace.

But the forced transition to online learning could be a particularly difficult one in Kern County, which has nearly 190,000 students, an estimated 60,000 of whom live below the poverty line. A good number of them lack internet access, or a device that can get them online, or both.

But how many? And who are are they? that’s what the Kern County Superintendent of Schools Office is desperately trying to learn before campuses close Wednesday. Lessons will continue online, but students without connectivity, or without devices, will be left out unless something is done fast.

The man in charge of this huge issue is Anthony Davis, of the KCSOS office.

“My technology task force has been focused in three different areas,” Davis said at a Monday morning press conference. “The first one is customer support for the curriculum task force, making sure that we have the staff and resources in place to support students and teachers as they use this distance learning.

“The second area is student hardware.We’re working with local, state and regional suppliers to see what devices are out there, what we can find to provide to districts.

“And the third area we’re really focused on is remote connectivity, working with ISPs and districts to find out how we can get connectivity into neighborhoods and homes that don’t have it now — how we can provide that for distance learning.”

Davis needs to locate Chromebook laptops — an unknown number, but probably thousands of them — and fast. He has been in contact with Costco corporate, Hewlett Packard and a local company, XIT, about obtaining laptops or iPads and putting them in the hands of the kids who need them.

That’s only half the battle, though. Thousands of kids live in towns and neighborhoods that the internet has not yet reached, or their families simply can’t afford the hookup. The KCSOS has been working with a number of internet service providers, such as Charter Communications, which last week announced it would provide free internet access to unwired families with students.

But what about areas the major ISPs can’t reach? One solution – now get this — is to drive school buses equipped with what’s called cradle points into neighborhoods where connectivity is spotty and let kids gather round, or climb aboard these wired buses in small groups, and download their homework onto their Chromebook or other device. Then they go home, work offline for a week until, on the appointed day, they go out to meet their school bus again, and whole thing repeats.

Other possible solutions might include recruiting local businesses with strong wi-fi signals to let students visit long enough to upload and download their homework. Or distributing mi-fis, or mobile internet hotspots.

Of course many families have a parent or two with one or more devices and those parents may well be asked to let their students borrow those devices for a period of time each day.

Bottom line is, the KCSOS is not just working on one universal solution, its staff is working on many.

Have we reached a time and place where the only alternative to classrooms learning is the internet? No, but it’s the most efficient tool, if we can get into everyone’s hands.

The KCSOS also has KETN, its television station, which reaches many thousands of homes, and good ole paper — packets of lessons the Bakersfield City School District, to name one, is frantically putting together to send home with kids by day’s end Tuesday.

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