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Spotlight on California: Navigating Back to School in a Coronavirus Hot Spot

August 14, 2020

Article by: Progress Report – Unidos US

As COVID-19 cases spiked across the South and West over the summer, California surpassed New York to become the state with the most coronavirus cases. In July, Governor Gavin Newsom responded to the surge by ordering all schools in counties with rising infections and hospitalizations to prepare to hold all classes online when schools reopen for the fall term.

San Rafael’s Canal neighborhood, a largely low-income and heavily Latino enclave in affluent Marin County, is one of the California communities where the digital divide is a huge obstacle to distance learning. The Canal Alliance, an UnidosUS Affiliate that champions immigrants and social justice, found in a survey that 57% of respondents in the Canal neighborhood lacked a computer, compared to just 10% outside the Canal. Forty-two percent of Canal residents had internet connections too slow to watch video without extended buffering or load a website in 10 seconds. Eighty-seven percent of residents outside the Canal said their connections were fast enough to do both of those things. This disparity can put Canal students at a severe disadvantage in online classes.

Luis Martinez, a 20-year Canal resident, told the Marin Independent Journal that his family is among those struggling with slow and unreliable internet connections, and it was a problem for his three children when their kindergarten, middle school, and high school classes switched to distance learning when the coronavirus pandemic hit in the spring.

“It’s a headache when the internet fails and slows down,” Martinez said. “It’ll log the kids out of their Zoom class and they miss out key points of the lecture. They miss out on learning.”

To address this issue, the Canal Alliance is partnering with the city, the county, and the school district to launch a mesh WiFi network in the Canal that will serve an estimated 2,000 students with hot spots around the neighborhood. The digital divide this will help address existed before the pandemic, but the problem took on new urgency in the pandemic as learning—and just about everything else—shifted online. “It won’t cover the entire neighborhood, but it’s a critical first step,” said Air Gallegos, Canal Alliance’s education and career director.

But getting students the tools they need to learn online is not the only challenge facing families served by Canal Alliance. For example, real estate is expensive in the mostly affluent city, so many immigrants in the Canal live in crowded homes ill-suited as makeshift classrooms.

Roxana Cruz, a Canal parent of a University Prep Middle School student, said she had a list of worries about the coming term of distance learning, including whether her daughter will find her work space at home to be quiet and comfortable enough to get her schoolwork done, and that social isolation could affect her social and emotional well-being.

Read the rest of this article on the Progress Report website.

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