PD Editorial: COVID relief bill delivers tech to students

Editorials represent the views of The Press Democrat editorial board and The Press Democrat as an institution. The editorial board and the newsroom operate separately and independently of one another.

Northern California students have better access to the technology they need to succeed than they did at the height of the pandemic a year ago. Thank the American Rescue Plan.

The overall American Rescue Plan — the COVID relief measure passed by Congress a year ago — clocked in at $1.9 trillion.

The legislation covered wide-ranging priorities and programs. Much of it remains controversial in partisan discussions, and economists will debate its effects for years. There’s little disagreement, however, that the $7.2 billion set aside to help schools and libraries connect people to digital resources has succeeded. That’s true nationally, and it’s true here on California’s North Coast.

The money went into what’s called the Emergency Connectivity Fund Program. Schools applied to it for grants to buy equipment and provide broadband access to students and teachers. Recall that a year ago, students were largely remote learning. If a family didn’t have a somewhat modern computer and a fast internet connection, it was hard for students to participate fully. Students of color and those from low-income families were disproportionately being left behind as the pandemic lingered.

The technology paid for by the American Rescue Plan helped close the digital gap, and its benefits continue today even after students have returned to classrooms. The students who received laptops use them to access educational resources and communicate with their peers. In the modern world, any student who is not learning how to use those digital tools is not learning how to succeed in life.

California schools received $660 million from the connectivity fund. According to Rep. Jared Huffman, schools in his district, which stretches along the coast from the Golden Gate Bridge to the Oregon border, received $8 million.

Petaluma City Schools won grants worth $101,511. Healdsburg Unified School District secured $54,759. Both asked for money to pay for mobile broadband for underserved homes and for hundreds of Chromebook laptops. All told, more than three dozen schools and school systems in Huffman’s district received connectivity funding.

“Families in my district are no strangers to the hurdles caused by the deep digital divide that has been brought to the national spotlight by COVID-19,” Huffman said. “The world has moved online, and kids without access to the internet and the opportunities that provides are often left to fall behind.”

The challenge of broadband access remains especially acute in Huffman’s district because so much of it is rural. It’s expensive to connect far-flung homes. Counties, the state and the federal government have talked for years about delivering high-speed internet service to those families. Schools, with funding from Washington, are helping make it happen.

Libraries also are using the funds to democratize information and access to it. The Marin County Free Library, for example, was awarded $548,350. It asked for the money to provide internet hot spots for students as well as to provide Chromebooks and broadband “tech connect packs” to other patrons.

The digital divide existed before the pandemic, but COVID-19 widened the gulf and laid it bare for all to see. A few laptops and some broadband access funded by the American Rescue Plan won’t close the gap, but they will help real students and families keep pace during these challenging times.

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Editorials represent the views of The Press Democrat editorial board and The Press Democrat as an institution. The editorial board and the newsroom operate separately and independently of one another.

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