Education Matters: Billions in broadband investment could close the pandemic-fueled digital divide

Education

FRESNO, California (KSEE) – California Governor Gavin Newsom is proposing spending $7 billion on broadband infrastructure. The funding could help connect thousands of homes currently without reliable internet.

The funding can’t come soon enough for students who depend on internet service.

Western Fresno County is an area where there is no – or very limited – access to the internet. Not having that connection came into sharp focus when schools had to switch to remote learning.

“They all went online that very first day to do the distance education. What happened on that morning here in Coalinga, the internet broke,” said Dr. Stuart Van Horn, Chancellor West Hills Community College District.

Dr. Stuart Van Horn says the pandemic brought to light the inequities that exist in education for many students.

“It’s just been exacerbated here because it’s illustrated the gaps that we’ve ignored as a state and a nation to deliver equitable resources for all students across the state.”

Students like Frances Reyes.

“When everything went virtual the first thing I thought was, Oh my goodness what am I going to do,” said Reyes.

Reyes, a student in the pharmacy program at California Health Sciences University, says her family could never afford internet services so Reyes got by the best way she knew.

“Internet is not necessarily something I have access to – but I do have access to it at school, at coffee shops, the library.”

When the pandemic shut down those public places, Reyes says she didn’t know what to do.

“Everything shut down. The libraries were no more access to them and so I kind of panicked, I panicked a little bit.”

Students were left scrambling trying to find an internet solution. Veronica Mendez-Garcia is a student at Fresno Pacific University. She is also a farmworker, rising at 3:00 a.m. to get to work. She logged on to her class from the fields.

“My first class didn’t begin until 7:45 and once it hit like 7:40 I would just run to wash my hands take my backpack and laptop, I would sit at one of the tables where we usually had lunch, and just do my classes.

Stories about students logging on wherever and whenever they could during the pandemic have forced officials to finally confront the digital divide. Funding for broadband is being proposed both at the national and state level.

“So many elected officials, so many civic leaders understand that there is no going back,” said Sunne McPeak with The California Emerging Technology Fund. “That digital equity is the 21st century civil right. We have the opportunity with leadership from the San Joaquin Valley with the state and the federal government to actually seize this moment and close the digital divide.”

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