File image of a boy wearing a maks as he writes in a notebook.
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COVID K-12

‘Last mile’ of digital divide still affecting thousands of Santa Cruz County kids

At the Buena Vista Migrant Center, the topic of internet connectivity comes up often when parents run into each other in common areas.

“We’re all having the same problem,” said Araceli Fernandez, whose son is a fifth-grader learning remotely in the Pajaro Valley Unified School District. “When we get together in the laundry room and ask, ‘How’s your son?’ it’s ‘Oh, no, the internet doesn’t work, the box that the school gave us is broken, and I have to take him to Starbucks to use WiFi.’”

Fernandez, who was interviewed in Spanish, said her family is better equipped than others. She pays about $100 a month for satellite internet so her son can learn remotely. It usually works, if slowly. But her son is still falling behind in his classes and struggling to keep on top of his homework. She said he needs more time on assignments or a more reliable internet connection.

Neighbor Elia Fernandez — no relation — said her family is facing an even more daunting challenge to keep their freshman daughter on track with her classes. Instead of satellite, her daughter relies on a WiFi hotspot provided by the school district. The cellular signal isn’t strong, and she said the connection crawls.

A line of homes at the Buena Vista Migrant Center, near Watsonville.
A line of homes at the Buena Vista Migrant Center, near Watsonville.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Surrounded by farmland on the outskirts of Watsonville, the Buena Vista Migrant Center provides subsidized housing for farmworkers and their families for most of the year. Home to more than 100 children in local public schools, the housing is part of what Jason Borgen, chief technology officer at the Santa Cruz County Office of Education, calls the “last mile” of Santa Cruz County’s digital divide.

Nine months after schools closed their campuses and sent children home to learn online, roughly 2,000 public school students in the county — about 5% — lack reliable internet access, Borgen estimates. Most live in rural areas where broadband options are limited, cellular reception is spotty and, in the case of farmworker housing, the density of residents can overload shared connections.

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The situation is improving since the pandemic prompted school closures in March. Back then, nearly 20% of the county’s roughly 40,000 public school students lacked reliable access to the internet.

Among the strategies for bridging the divide: Pajaro Valley Unified has handed out about 20,000 Chromebooks to students during the pandemic, enough for every student in the district, and distributed 4,250 hotspots. Students can also access the internet at seven “safe space” sites.

Major internet providers such as Comcast, Xfinity and Spectrum have special rates for low-income families. Santa Cruz-based internet provider Cruzio has also boosted its coverage and offered free or reduced-cost plans to families in need. In September, the company teamed up with local schools and community groups to launch Equal Access Santa Cruz County — an ambitious effort to raise funds and help families secure speedy connections through various means.

But bridging the remaining span for students who face an entire school year without reliable internet is a major hurdle.

“We’re continuously working around the clock to try to figure it out ASAP,” said Borgen.

Ann Lopez, director of the nonprofit Center for Farmworker Families, said the families she works with have waited too long already.

Farmworkers work a field near Watsonville on Nov. 16.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

“That is their one fervent hope, that their families can become educated and out of farm work and have a better life,” Lopez said. “So what happens is they don’t have internet access, many don’t have computers. They’re losing, essentially, this whole year of schooling. They’ll be behind when they do go back, and I just think it’s cruel.”

‘Up here, the impact is profound’

In Bonny Doon, in the Santa Cruz Mountains, internet and cellular service were spotty well before the devastating CZU Lightning Complex fire swept through in mid-August, chewing across much of the mountain and torching hundreds of homes.

But unreliable electricity in the fire’s aftermath is another hurdle for families returning home, according to Bonny Doon School principal Mike Heffner, who also is superintendent of the mountaintop district of 165 students.

Electricity and internet weren’t restored to some areas for weeks. “We had a portion of our community that needed to come back home based on their family’s need, but then couldn’t immediately engage in distance learning because of the remote nature of Bonny Doon, and the impact of the fire,” Heffner said.

Then, in the name of fire safety, PG&E turned off power to much of Bonny Doon twice in October, part of its public-safety power shutoff program.

“Up here the impact is profound and real,” Heffner said, calling the combination of fire and power shutoffs a “double hit” for families in the district.

Mike Heffner is the Boony Doon School principal as well as superintendent of the small, rural school district.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Heffner said 5% to 10% of families lack reliable internet under ordinary circumstances. During a power shutoff, that jumps as high as 40%.

With sparse cellular connectivity across the district, hotspots aren’t much use. Instead, a handful of those students are now learning regularly on campus at the school — also a practice in other districts.

Heffner credits support from the wider community, including Cruzio, for helping keep students connected under the circumstances. Cruzio set up free WiFi at the elementary school that can run on the school’s generator when the power goes out, creating, essentially, an internet island.

When the power shut off late in October, that network was up and running. Families parked in the parking lot to access their schoolwork and another group worked in the library spaced far apart.

“I had two families with kids of different ages just sitting in their cars in the parking lot with one kid in the front seat and another in the backseat and the windows rolled up — and they’re engaged in distance learning,” Heffner said.

‘Something that is guaranteed’

The digital divide standing between some students and their peers was keeping DigitalNEST founder Jacob Martinez up at night long before the pandemic. He founded the Watsonville-based nonprofit in 2013, after seeing a student forced to sit outside to use WiFi.

Before remote learning, Martinez said students could sometimes get away with unreliable internet access — using a parent or relative’s phone as a temporary hotspot, or making a quick trip elsewhere to turn in homework. Not anymore.

“All of a sudden, there’s this expectation that 100% of your kids are online, 100% of them are engaged,” Martinez said. “We’re asking them to be on camera, which is pulling bandwidth.”

A masked student works at a computer Nov. 13.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Martinez said his family is among the privileged, with a top-of-the-line broadband connection and devices for each of their three children. But sometimes even that doesn’t cut it. “Here’s the director of DigitalNEST — I have three kids at home, my wife at home, and all of a sudden, I’m having bandwidth issues,” he said.

As Martinez explains it, if it wasn’t clear before it should be now: access to internet and technology are fundamental. While crediting schools and others for stepping up to the plate, he questioned how many of those programs will disappear when the health crisis ends, leaving the same families behind. “They’re going to be without internet again, and the cover is going to go over everyone’s eyes again around the digital divide.”

Education officials are also increasingly looking beyond the pandemic.

“[Internet] should be something that is guaranteed,” said Heffner, reflecting on “how our students are, forever forward, going to have this very real need to be connected even in a post-pandemic world.”

Phased approach

Faris Sabbah, Santa Cruz County’s top education official, says he thinks about bridging the digital divide in phases. “I think we’ve gotten through the first phases where we’ve given out hotspots, we’ve told people where they can go for public WiFi and whatnot.”

The second phase, he said, is ongoing — investing in creative solutions for those still left out, whether in the form of new infrastructure, partnerships with satellite providers like the new Starlink, or something else.

Ultimately, the goal should be universal broadband, effectively government provided high-speed internet. That’s a six- to 10-year project requiring multimillion-dollar investments countywide.

For the Buena Vista Migrant Center, Cruzio is working on establishing a line of sight connection from the nearby Pajaro Valley High School. District officials said project planning is underway, and a no-cost connection should be available long term.

Pajaro Valley High School
An effort is underway to install an antenna on top of a building at Pajaro Valley High School to beam internet to residents at the nearby Buena Vista Migrant Center.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

It’s not immediately clear if it will be installed before the seasonal housing center closes at the end of December, or when it reopens in April. Residents in the center are already packing up to leave, some to stay elsewhere in the area while others head further afield.

Araceli Fernandez and her family have already left. Elia Fernandez and her family are leaving by mid-December. When they return in the spring, she hopes her daughter won’t face the same problems — or, better yet, have to learn remotely at all.

“My hope is everything returns to normal, that all this that’s going on will be over,” Elia Fernandez said in Spanish.

“I want my daughter back to school, as usual.”