Oakland teacher Sara Shepich teaches class via her laptop during the COVID-19 pandemic. Photo: Courtesy Sara Shepich

When schools shut down and learning moved to students’ homes two months ago, about 25,000 Oakland public school students — roughly half of OUSD’s total student body — didn’t have adequate internet access or a computer at home, making it tough or even impossible for them to participate in online classes. On Thursday, the Oakland Unified School District launched an ambitious fundraising effort to continue to address its digital divide.

In partnership with the city of Oakland, the Oakland Public Education Fund and local technology nonprofit Tech Exchange, OUSD officials set a $2.5 million goal to secure technology for current students by the end of the month, and hope to raise an additional $10 million to close the digital divide for all future students.

The announcement comes a month after distance learning began.

“It’s been long overdue to address this issue,” said OUSD Superintendent Kyla Johnson-Trammell. “The coronavirus has left us naked as a society to see how stark the disparities are in our country.”

With only two weeks left in the school year, nearly 1,400 students still need a device and about 3,400 don’t have internet access. “Our goal is to make sure we have one device per household,” Johnson-Trammell said during a school board meeting this week. “As we go into the 2021 school year, our goal is to become one-to-one,” so that every student has their own device without having to share with other family members, she said.

OUSD officials said Thursday that they are working to ensure students are prepared for summer school, which will be taught through distance learning. Virtual learning will “absolutely” be part of the plan for the 2020-2021 school year, the superintendent said this week.

In addition to the fundraising campaign, the district will spend part of the $14 million in federal stimulus funding it expects to receive by July 1 on technology. Twitter CEO and founder Jack Dorsey tweeted Friday that he will pledge the remaining $10 million, though he has a spotty record of fulfilling his philanthropic promises.

At Fremont High School in Fruitvale, where 95% of the school’s 771 students come from low-income families, only 398 Chromebook laptops have been distributed since shelter-in-place began. When the school sent out a survey to measure technology needs, nearly a quarter of students said they lacked internet access.

Juan Matias Pablo, a senior at Fremont, was one of those students. He received a Chromebook from his school soon after campuses closed in March, but without internet access at home, he couldn’t do much with it. Chromebooks have little internal storage space and run mainly on Google web applications, which require a constant internet connection.

“I’ve been using my phone or going to my job to use the computer there because it has internet,” he said.

OUSD officially started offering distance learning classes on April 13, after schools had been closed for four weeks, including Spring Break week. When it was announced that instruction for the rest of the year would happen online or through take-home paper packets, school leaders began frantically reviewing their supplies of laptops to give to students. Since then, the district has distributed 18,000 Chromebook laptops.

Making sure students have internet access has been trickier. To tackle the digital divide, OUSD has had to address the five thousand students who lack any kind of internet access at home, and 17,000 who lack high-speed internet, according to OUSD’s student survey. Those numbers have since dwindled, but the need hasn’t disappeared.

Some families have relied on cell phone data plans or other workarounds. Others have tried signing up free or subsidized programs offered by cable companies, but many say they have run into problems that have prevented them from using these resources. Many families are deemed ineligible for the service because they have an existing account or have had their service terminated in the past for not paying. Providing a social security number to register an account can be daunting for families with mixed immigration status.

Even with the renewed push to expand distance learning readiness, problems persist.

Oakland resident Violeta Escobar obtained two OUSD laptops for her niece and nephew, who live with her, and she uses her personal laptop for her son’s kindergarten assignments from Manzanita SEED Elementary. She couldn’t afford a home internet plan, so at first, they used Escobar’s phone as an internet hotspot, but the connection was spotty with bad audio and video because so many people were using it.

The family was then able to secure a free hotspot from Tech Exchange, an Oakland organization that provides refurbished computers and other devices to families and schools, but that option was not much better, Escobar said.

“We were back to the same spot where we weren’t even using that hotspot because the connection wasn’t good at all,” Escobar said. “For a couple of days, I was like, we’re not even going to try to connect because it’s so frustrating.”

The district had shared ads from Comcast and other internet service providers about free or discounted internet access to students, but Escobar had heard from other families that these connections weren’t very strong, so she didn’t try that option.

Relief finally came not through OUSD, but through their own efforts. Friends who heard about her situation gave Escobar some money to get through the pandemic, she said. She decided to buy an internet package for her home.

One day earlier this week, the children—in kindergarten, fourth and sixth grade—excitedly watched and waited by the window for the technician to arrive, Escobar said. They’ve now had high-speed internet for four days, and it’s made a huge difference.

“Not everybody has a friend who can help out. A lot of people and families are going through this situation,” Escobar said. “I know that the district and some organizations out there have the best intention to help, but it might not be enough.”

Ashley McBride reports on education equity for The Oaklandside. She covered the 2019 OUSD teachers strike as a breaking news reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle. More recently, she was an education...