Before the COVID-19 pandemic, single mother Folashade Ogun was a paraeducator in special education for the ABC Unified School District in LA County, which includes the cities of Artesia, Bellflower and Cerritos.

Her three daughters attend elementary schools in the district, which serves predominantly Latino and Asian American students. The district will continue distanced learning for the fall, posing a problem for Ogun’s family and thousands of others in LA County – a lack of internet and technological resources.

“When they said they’re going to shut down the schools, at first I’m like…that means no job…no money,” Ogun said. “But I just heard something telling me. Even if there is a job or not, you are going to be taking care of [your daughters] now.”

Each of her daughters shared a laptop for distance learning before partnering with Family Promise of the South Bay, a nonprofit that helps homeless families achieve housing stability. The organization provided them with Google Chromebooks to continue distance learning for the upcoming school year.

Without the support of organizations like Family Promise, families of nearly 1 million California students are still disconnected, according to the California Department of Education.

This has been a problem that has troubled many Californians for years, especially those in low-income households and people of color, according to a USC study on the distance learning gap done by the Annenberg School of Communication released in April.

In LA County, roughly one-in-four households with school-aged kids, which includes some 250,000 families, lacks access to both broadband internet and either a laptop or desktop computer, the report found. It outlined specific areas in LA where the gap in the digital divide is the widest.

The digital divide is wider in some parts of the county than others. Many of the least connected neighborhoods in the county are within areas such as Boyle Heights or Watts, where more than half of households lack internet resources for their children to engage efficiently while distance learning.

California Department of Education Superintendent Tony Thurmond created a task force to work with internet service providers and state legislative members on closing the digital divide. The task force provided an update in an August 6 webinar to connect school leaders to available devices on one-time funding available to school districts to purchase devices. State law requires schools to have a plan for ensuring access to connectivity and devices for all students whenever distance learning occurs.

“We know that up to 1 million students still need devices for distance learning, and we’re in a race against the clock as most schools plan to begin the next school year virtually,” Thurmond said in the webinar.

The department has also provided online resources outlining available internet access plans for families who are struggling to find proper distance learning and working resources.

Internet service providers such as AT&T, Comcast and Cox have extended their benefits for those affected by the pandemic. AT&T is automatically waiving internet data overage charges through Sept. 30, so customers can use unlimited data at home. meaning its customers can use unlimited data and won’t see overage charges on their home internet bill.

Ogun's daughters on their Google Chromebooks. (Photo courtesy of Folashade Ogun).
Ogun's daughters on their Google Chromebooks. (Photo courtesy of Folashade Ogun).

At the local county level, LA Unified Superintendent Austin Beutner launched a $100 million emergency fund in March to provide thousands of computers and Wi-Fi hotspots nearly to all of the district’s students who lack internet access at home. LA Unified is the second-largest school district in America serving nearly 730,000 students.

The rate of LAUSD households without devices or broadband access is probably closer to one-in-three, said Professor Hernan Galperin, who headed the USC report.

The study revealed the county’s digital divide race-related trends. Black and Hispanic students regardless of family income were significantly less likely to live in a household with both internet access and a computer. Hispanic children were about half as likely as non-Hispanic peers to live in a connected household.

“Low-income areas are where you would find underfunded schools and most likely less infrastructure on the ground,” Galperin said.

The digital divide goes beyond school and homework. Low-income neighborhoods are often overlooked for infrastructure investments, Galperin said. Families in these areas typically have fewer internet providers to choose from and must often pay higher prices for access. Galperin’s research team created another detailed map that emphasizes the problem of this kind of digital disconnection.

This digital divide during the coronavirus crisis means many people are not well equipped to work remotely, access an appointment with a healthcare provider or receive basic necessities from home.

For years, the U.S. has been dealing with the "homework gap" — the difficulties faced by public school students who lacked a device or internet connection that were needed to complete their assignments from home in an efficient manner.

Even before the pandemic, educators shared stories about their students having to access Wi-Fi outside public libraries and Starbucks or McDonald's parking lots. Students have been put in these situations to complete and submit assignments on smaller mobile devices like tablets and phones.

“It’s literally the education gap,” Galperin said. “Kids have been literally dropping off the map because they are unable to connect with their schools.”

For Ogun, providing a life for her three daughters is her first priority in the midst of the pandemic.

“It’s pretty hard because the money is not coming in,” Ogun said. “But I don’t trade anything for staying with my kids, being there for them, for money.”