As schools across the country moved online this spring due to COVID-19 concerns, it revealed just how vast the digital divide runs in some of our poorest communities.
Many students do not have access to a computer or the Internet, and school districts have been working to provide them with the technology they need to complete their lessons. But, many districts simply cannot meet the demand. In California, for example, the state’s Department of Education estimates districts are short more than 400,000 devices.
In an effort to close the state’s digital divide, Assemblymember Rebecca Bauer-Kahan (D-Orinda) introduced a bill that would have exempted school districts from paying state sales taxes when purchasing laptops and other equipment necessary for distance learning.
Unfortunately, lawmakers weakened the bill due to pressure from the California Teachers Association (CTA). Rather than making technology more accessible when its needed most, the bill will create yet another study committee, forcing California’s poorest students to wait on the sidelines.
As school districts plan how to safely reopen schools in the fall due to COVID-19, many schools are considering hybrid or online-only curriculum. This legislation in its original form would have made it much easier—and cheaper—for school districts to purchase the equipment students need to ensure every student can receive a high-quality education from the safety of their home.
CTA claims they opposed the legislation in its original form because they wanted more money to go to schools. But, that argument doesn’t make sense. How does taking more money out of school districts by forcing them to pay sales tax on equipment help?
We’re in the middle of a pandemic, and it’s clear a significant number of families and teachers do not feel safe returning to “business as usual” at a brick and mortar school in the fall. Distance learning in some capacity will be the norm next year. And, without action, the digital divide that exists today will grow even deeper next year as our poorest students get left behind their peers.
This isn’t the time to play games. This is the time for policymakers to embrace policies that ensure each and every student has access to the tools they need to stay safe and receive a quality education.