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Digital divide leaves rural and poor Sonoma County students with no internet connection

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For Betha MacClain, serving as superintendent of a rural school district in Two Rock came with a unique set of challenges well before the coronavirus pandemic closed her single school.

Enrollment at Two Rock Union School District is unpredictable, and can swing dramatically year to year since most families live on the U.S. Coast Guard training center, MacClain said.

The rest of the parents live in the bucolic southern Sonoma County countryside, either as farm owners or the laborers who work them. Attracting and retaining teachers is difficult with salaries among the lowest in the county. Still, it’s a proud district, she said.

But the sudden countywide switch last month to distance learning, which forced about 70,000 students to take classes from home for the rest of the school year, has brought to the forefront the chronic lack of internet access in rural towns like Two Rock as teachers scramble to get every student online.

Many remote or impoverished communities in the county don’t even have the telecommunications infrastructure and resources to access the internet. The problem highlights the so-called digital divide between populous suburban cities of Santa Rosa and Petaluma and the rural, outlying areas. It’s a conundrum that for years has frustrated elected leaders from the county to Washington, D.C.

In Two Rock, for example, 42 of its 168 students do not have an internet connection, according to a survey last month by the Sonoma County Office of Education. All come from families in which Spanish is the primary language. MacClain said teachers have completely lost touch with some of them since county schools were forced to close and switch from classroom learning to at-home instruction to help curtail spread of the new coronavirus.

“We still think about internet as a privilege and not a utility,” she said. “That’s a fundamental problem, but we still treat it like an extra. Now (with distance learning) we’re relying on it to provide something that’s a civil right, like education.”

Two Rock students are not alone. At least 30 of 40 public school districts in Sonoma County apparently have students with no access to the internet at home, the county education office found. Most school districts are providing mobile hot spots, which allows families to convert a cellphone signal into wireless internet.

That’s not an option for the Kashia or Horicon school districts in the northernmost reaches of the county where a cell signal is unreliable, therefore students can’t go online using free internet services offered during the pandemic.

At Horicon Elementary School in Annapolis, roughly two-thirds of its 61 students have no way to connect to the internet, according to the county education office.

Most families work in forestry or food service, said Horicon district Superintendent Jeff McFarland. About 92% of students are foster youth, qualify for free and reduced-price lunch or are still learning English, which combined was the second-highest percentage of that socioeconomic category in a California school district last year.

Like Two Rock, Horicon’s students are driven to surpass their parents and dedicated teachers who exhaust every avenue to help, McFarland said. But with families working to survive and paper packets the only viable path to distance learning, the district’s leader fears this generation of students could fall short.

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“If we can’t resolve this internet issue, at least for our district, we will see incredible loss of academics. There’s no recovering from that,” McFarland said. “There’s students who could lose a full year of academics because of the fires, the smoke damage, the power outages and now this.”

County and U.S. officials have tried before to tackle the issue, but have encountered two big hurdles: a lack of political will and few incentives to compel private telecom companies to spend money to build broadband networks in remote communities that offer minimal profit.

Rep. Jared Huffman, D-San Rafael, whose North Coast district encompasses numerous rural areas lacking online access, introduced the New Deal Rural Broadband Act of 2017 that would have set aside $20 billion to build broadband infrastructure and provide millions in annual grants. Last year, he put forward another bill that would let federal properties partner with communities that need broadband, legislation that could help districts like Two Rock that can’t capitalize on the internet infrastructure at the local Coast Guard campus.

Both bills are sitting idle in congressional subcommittees. A public outcry is necessary to move the political needle, Huffman said.

“It’s also about the big telecoms,” he said. “They have, in selfish ways, opposed local and regional partnerships that could step in and provide this service because they view it as a competitive threat. It’s the worst of all worlds because they won’t do it or allow someone else to step in and do it.”

Sonoma County Supervisor David Rabbitt, whose district includes Two Rock, said there’s an economic stimulus opportunity if federal leaders can seize the moment and help rural areas overcome the digital divide. He likened it to the Tennessee Valley Authority projects in the 1930s that helped electrify remote corners of the southeast and modernize agriculture.

“Broadband or internet access was probably considered a luxury item, but now it’s a necessity,” Rabbitt said. “If we can’t grab it right now and drive this point home, when can we?”

You can reach Staff Writer Yousef Baig at 707-521-5390 or yousef.baig@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @YousefBaig.

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