With a new round of distance learning getting started, Inland officials are working to make sure every student has access to virtual instruction.
The Riverside County Office of Education Foundation launched the All For One fundraiser to collect devices for students in need after the coronavirus pandemic shut schools. The goal of trying to eliminate the digital divide got a major boost Tuesday, Aug. 4, when the Riverside County Board of Supervisors voted to donate $10 million from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act to the cause.
San Bernardino County does not have a program similar to All For One, Superintendent of Schools spokeswoman Christine McGrew said. School districts, she said, are encouraged to use California Department of Education funding to help solve such issues. County schools-operated programs, including alternative and special education, have enough devices to meet the demand, McGrew said.
The San Bernardino County Board of Supervisors is not planning to earmark CARES Act dollars for devices, county spokesman David Wert said. However, school districts throughout San Bernardino County are handing out devices to students and the Fontana Unified School District recently received a donation toward its efforts.
Riverside County Office of Education Foundation Director Ed Lewis, who has helped spearhead All For One, called the county’s donation “a tremendous step in fundraising for the program, and one that’s going to benefit so many students who are in need.”
“This will get us about one-third of where we need to be, but if we continue to communicate our mission and can get the community to see what we are doing, maybe we can take the final steps,” he said.
Riverside County Supervisor V. Manuel Perez wrote the proposal.
“First and foremost is recognizing that the digital divide is real, especially in more rural areas of Riverside County,” Perez said. “So, if we’re serious about making real change and helping out our students, we had to tackle this issue.”
Tallying the need for devices
The Riverside County schools office recently assessed the digital needs of the approximately 530,000 students at the county’s 515 public schools. Districts have tapped into $5.3 billion of funding set aside by the state education department and their own budgets to obtain devices, but county Superintendent Judy White said 50,000 devices and 30,000 hot spots still were needed in Riverside County after an updated survey.
White said fulfilling these needs are more important as the new school year begins. When schools shuttered in spring, most districts mandated that grades only could be raised, which often led to low participation numbers. That is not the case as distance learning continues this fall.
“There is a higher accountability of learning,” White said. “It has to be live instruction. Assessments have to occur.”
The office created the campaign, which includes a GoFundMe account through which individuals and businesses can contribute. The target goal of $100,000 is modest, Lewis said. The GoFundMe page had raised $12,135 as of Wednesday, Aug. 12.
“We wanted the goal to be realistic — high enough to make a real difference … but not too high that we had no chance of reaching the goal,” Lewis said.
Lewis said the program also has been receiving in-kind donations. For example, Microsoft recently closed some Inland stores and donated $29,000 worth of devices to the program.
The National Real Estate Development Association’s Inland Empire Chapter recently gave $25,000 to the Fontana Unified School District to help pay for devices.
“Distance learning isn’t an ideal situation for many of our students and families who might not have access to computers, internet service or other resources to successfully work from home,” Fontana mayor Acquanetta Warren said in a news release.
Low-income, rural students most affected
White said her office’s goal is ensuring every student in Riverside County has a digital device and internet access by the end of the month.
The campaign looks to prioritize students most in need, including those from low-income households and living in rural areas with unreliable or no internet service. Households with multiple students but only one device are among the groups who will be targeted at the beginning.
“It’s a systemic problem that’s robbed many communities of being able to connect on a digital level,” said Perez, whose district represents the Coachella Valley. “Unfortunately, these issues were exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.”
Supervisor Kevin Jeffries asked whether the $10 million would be made available to private school students.
“A disadvantaged student should not be penalized simply because they are attending a private school,” Jeffries said. “I think it’s important for us as a county to represent all of our population, not a limited focus...“
White said her office has not assessed the digital needs of the 117 private schools in Riverside County. They have access to Title 1 federal money and donations to All For One could be used to help their students, too, White said.
Heidi Marshall, director of Riverside County’s Department of Housing, Homelessness Prevention and Workforce Services, recommends that the number of private school students in need be identified, perhaps through an application process, and a proportional amount of the $10 million be set spent on those students.
Lewis estimates it would take roughly $35 million to completely erase Riverside County’s educational digital divide. The program will continue to accept donations and explore additional ways to raise funds, including corporate sponsors.
“Farmer Boys was the first one to get involved and helped us raise $10,000,” Lews said. “They are reaching out to their customer base, and that sort of thing helps spread the word around.”
Perez and his fellow supervisors might revisit the issue and possibly earmark more dollars to the program.
“We want to continue to ensure the success of our youth and enhance the quality of education,” Perez said. “This is just the start.”
— to www.pe.com