Veronica Flores and her daughter Rosalina meet up with her third grade teacher Tiffany Haro to try to connect to the free internet service at Reidy Creek Elementary School. / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

The first day of school is approaching for schools across the region, but many families and teachers still don’t have access to reliable internet connection or devices.

Gov. Gavin Newsom last month directed San Diego County and others on the state’s coronavirus monitoring watch list to begin the school year online. And a recent state education trailer bill requires school districts to ensure that all students have a device and internet connectivity. Yet several months after schools initially closed as a result of the virus, not everyone can easily access new learning plans that require internet connectivity.

Students in backcountry districts like Bonsall Unified School District, Vallecitos School District and Borrego Springs Unified School District are still likely to struggle with connecting to the internet and accessing devices to complete schoolwork, a reality that threatens to widen the achievement gap. Meanwhile, superintendents and school leaders from small, rural districts told Voice of San Diego they’re frustrated by the slow response from the state and other complications to accessing devices and the internet before the start of the school year.

Lack of Devices

The superintendent at Bonsall Unified said the district ordered laptops to dole out to students, but they won’t be here for months. More than one school official told Voice of San Diego they’d love to order devices, but can’t because of supply shortages. The superintendent at Borrego Springs Unified School District said he’s still trying to figure out how to connect students where there’s spotty cell phone and internet service. The superintendent at Vallecitos School District said she has enough Chromebooks for students, but the funding she received from the state to purchase internet hotspots didn’t cover all their needs, so families without access must complete their online coursework at school or other community hotspots, or complete paper coursework instead.

Nearly 100,000 students in San Diego County, one-fifth of the public school population, lack access to the internet at home or are under-connected. Approximately 65 percent of those students are concentrated in the southern and remote rural areas of the county, said Terry Loftus, chief technology officer for the San Diego County Office of Education.

“This problem is exacerbated among our county’s most vulnerable student populations, including those who are in foster care, experiencing homelessness, and in need of special education services,” Loftus wrote. “Additionally, more than 500 Native American students from our most rural and remote districts are in need of devices to participate in digital distance learning.”

School districts can apply for state funding from a $5.3 million pot allocated for distance learning and will have to purchase computers and hotspots themselves with the funding they get, said Cynthia Butler, a spokeswoman for the California Department of Education. The agency is trying to get the word out to districts about applying for funds and priorities of those funds will go to communities that have the greatest needs.

But many local school officials told Voice of San Diego that even with state funding, they’re unable to find a company to supply the computers they need.

Loftus said the pandemic itself has caused supply-chain issues for computer manufacturers, while demand within education, and across all sectors where employees have transitioned to work-from-home during recent months, has gone up.

“This spike in demand, coupled with supply issues has translated into longer delivery times for needed equipment and devices,” Loftus wrote in an email.

The state prioritized some schools in low-income and rural areas when it provided devices, and donated hundreds of Google Chromebooks to districts across the county, including 100 to Borrego Springs Unified, and 50 to Vallecitos Elementary, said Butler.

Many of those schools now have enough computers for students, but officials are still waiting on internet hotspots to arrive or are looking for other ways to get students to the internet before the school year starts.

Loftus said the difficulties acquiring devices and connectivity services are exacerbated by changing local and state guidelines. The governor’s move to implement distance learning for all counties on the state watch list meant that districts that had planned to return to school in one form now need additional devices.

State Superintendent Tony Thurmond said in a web conference that in many cases, a district’s preferred device won’t be available for weeks after the school year starts. In the meantime the Department of Education is working with Apple and T-Mobile to provide a more immediate option for schools to purchase: iPads with T-Mobile connectivity at about $580 for a full school year, including a data contract. Some school officials and teachers, though, have told Voice of San Diego that different students using different devices can cause teaching challenges.

In some areas where broadband infrastructure is lacking like in Rainbow, internet hotspots can only do so much to get students and teachers connected.

Mark Stevens, superintendent of Borrego Springs, said the state’s 100 laptop donation covers all students there, and the district has enough hotspots to provide coverage for most households, but they do not work well in their remote location. He said they’re looking at using additional funds from the state to boost the internet infrastructure in hard-to-serve areas.

David Macleod, superintendent of Warner Unified School District, said his district still needs the 15 video units and 20 hotspots he reported his district needs to the Department of Education in March.

Lack of Connectivity

Federal and state data maps show rural areas like Fallbrook, Rainbow and Julian have extremely limited access to broadband internet. Major providers don’t provide service in parts of those communities, and few local internet service providers do. There are other pockets in Alpine, Bonsall, Del Mar, Rancho Santa Fe, Poway and other cities where limited areas are covered by major broadband providers. And when major providers do provide service in those areas, they aren’t the fastest speeds – which can make playing videos and downloading files difficult.

Rich Newman, the superintendent for Alpine Union School District, said he’s extremely disappointed in the state’s response to small rural districts’ needs. He said he didn’t receive any response after reporting a need for 75 Chromebooks for Boulder Oaks Elementary School, and that after weeks of calling the Department of Education, a customer service provider from T-Mobile reached out to him about providing hotspots. But the provider offered two months of free service, then would require the district to enter into a contract. Newman said he’ll need to make sure the service works before spending public funds on it.

“There’s a disconnect between the state and the local level. They’re saying, ‘Look at all this great stuff we’re doing.’ But school’s about to open and there’s a waitlist for devices,” he said. He said families in Alpine will have the option to go to nearby school sites for internet service when the school year starts.

During the spring, many schools implemented emergency learning programs that made assignments optional and implemented “credit/no-credit” grading systems in place of traditional letter grades as a way to acknowledge the struggles and extenuating circumstances brought on by the pandemic. But now that online learning is looking to be around for much longer, district officials are creating rigorous learning plans in which students must tune into live online classes throughout the day at some schools and be required to turn in classwork and homework. And they’re going to be more stringent on attendance and grading, which is worrying some parents who work full time and can’t supervise their children’s learning or who aren’t fluent in English or are unfamiliar with the devices on which their children must now work.

It’s a familiar case in Bonsall, where grading could be more stringent in the fall though many students are still under-connected. David Jones, superintendent of the Bonsall Unified School District, said he’s disappointed that Newsom directed schools not to physically open because district officials surveyed parents and found that about 80 percent of them would like their kids to go back to school in some capacity. Jones said he feels bad he’s not going to be able to accommodate those parents. He said some of them include families who live in remote areas and either can’t afford internet, or are in a location where there’s no broadband infrastructure.

Jones said many young students attend Vivian Banks Charter School on the Pala Indian Reservation, where there’s no broadband service. The district received $140,000 in state funding to obtain devices and hotspots for those students.

An average of 85 to 90 percent of the district’s students logged in both before and after spring break, based on data from school principals, said David Moore, executive director of educational services and special education for Bonsall Unified.

“Online learning’s got to have those pieces in place. You’ve got to have a working computer; you’ve got to have internet connectivity if students and teachers are going to work online,” Jones said.

Julie Urguhart-Aquino, who teaches eighth grade math, science and AVID and is vice president of the Bonsall Teacher’s Association, uses Spectrum’s internet services – one of the few options available – and didn’t have many problems last semester. But she’s worried about the upcoming semester because she may have to do live video calls.

“It’s caused problems for me. Last week I was Zoom conferencing and working on professional development for about 20 hours and there were numerous problems, and I worry that if students have the same problems, they will just tune out,” she said. “If video conferencing gets choppy or cuts out, it’s difficult to get information out to kids. If a kid is sitting in a classroom, a teacher never cuts out or gets choppy.”

She has other worries, too – including that the district doesn’t yet have a full-fledged plan for online learning, and that it won’t have enough Chromebooks for all of its students.

Broadband infrastructure is especially lacking in communities like Rainbow, where 218 students attend student school in the Vallecitos School District.

Only a few internet service providers service the area, and internet connections can be spotty and unreliable. The district is still in the early stages of working with T-Mobile to get hotspots, said Maritza Koeppen, the district superintendent. Koeppen said the district needed 225 hotspots but only ordered 75 because of the cost.

The district started a program in spring where anyone within 600 feet of a local park, the Summerville market and behind one of the nurseries in the area can get access to the internet, and anyone within 10 miles of the fire department will be able to access broadband signals that way. Lokket, a company that brings free WiFi access to communities, was already working on putting in internet access points before the pandemic, she said. She said one of the district’s preschool teachers didn’t have access to the internet so she asked her to set up an access point at her property so other community members can access the internet nearby.

At Vallecitos, 57 percent of students logged in per day before spring break and 77 percent of students logged in three times or more after spring break. Koeppen said the district will continue offering families a choice between online learning and filling out paper coursework.

Before Newsom’s announcement, district officials were preparing to offer full online learning, a hybrid learning model and full in class instruction if necessary, Koeppen said. They’re still figuring out how to handle orienting new students in the fall – a challenge they and other districts didn’t have in the spring.

“In spring we already knew the students but now there are initial assessments and new students are coming in so it’s going to be a challenge no matter what,” she said.

Advocates say small rural districts like Bonsall, Vallecitos and Fallbrook are not on the same playing field as big players like the San Diego Unified School District when it comes to access to devices and internet connectivity.

Tim Taylor, executive director of the Small School Districts’ Association, said he knows many teachers and students must either make a long drive into town to get internet or just deal with what they have. Expanding infrastructure and increasing internet service in rural areas comes down to a moral issue, he said.

“AT&T and Sprint are not going to make a lot of money to bring out access in those areas because there’s not a lot of people out there. This has to be government-driven. If they should water for every district, they should provide internet for them,” Taylor said.

Kayla Jimenez

Kayla Jiminez was a staff writer for Voice of San Diego. She covered about communities, politics and regional issues in North County as well as school...

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