El Sereno Middle School Principal Joyce Dara and LAUSD Chief Acadamic Office Frances Gipson lead the days classes for the roughly 300 students that attended school on the first day of the strike.

BY KYLE STOKES/LAist

Originally published on April 20. 2020 

With in-person classes canceled in schools across Los Angeles, officials have been racing to purchase laptops and secure internet connections for needy students who need them to continue learning online.

They’re trying to bridge a “great big digital divide” that’s existed for years. On Monday, a team of USC researchers released a report showing where in L.A. that gap is widest.

In L.A. County, roughly one-in-four households with school-aged kids — some 250,000 families — lacks access to both broadband internet and either a laptop or desktop computer, the researchers from USC’s Annenberg and Price schools found.

IN SOME NEIGHBORHOODS, A WIDER DIVIDE

The digital divide is wider in some parts of the county than others. Here’s a map of USC’s analysis. Darker green neighborhoods have higher rates of connected homes:

The map created by USC researchers with U.S. Census data shows that East Los Angeles is one of the county neighborhoods where families have the least access to broadband internet, laptops and desktop computers. (Screenshot/USC)

The maps suggest that some of the earliest estimates from public officials actually understated the scope of the problem.

In March, L.A. Unified superintendent Austin Beutner launched a $100 million purchasing program, including a deal with Verizon to provide thousands of internet hotspots — all while citing an estimate that perhaps one-in-four of the district’s students lacked internet at home.

But USC’s new analysis suggests Beutner’s estimate is a little low. The rate of LAUSD households without devices or broadband access is probably closer to one-in-three, said Hernan Galperin, an associate professor at USC’s Annenberg School.

And many of the least-connected neighborhoods in L.A. County are within LAUSD’s borders — neighborhoods such as East L.A. or Watts, where more than half of households “lack the technology resources for their child or children to engage effectively in distance learning,” as the USC researchers put it.

THE RACIAL ‘DIGITAL DIVIDE’

USC’s analysis also uncovered troubling race-related trends.

Black and Hispanic students — regardless of their family’s income — were significantly less likely to live in a household with both a computer and broadband internet access. (We’re using the term “Hispanic” here because USC’s analysis was based on U.S. Census data.)

For example, Hispanic children were about half as likely as non-Hispanic peers to live in a connected household.

According to Galperin: “We know low-income areas are where you would find underfunded schools and you would find less infrastructure on the ground” — including broadband service.

THE IMPACT OF THE DIGITAL DIVIDE

This is not only an issue that affects education.

Low-income and “minority” neighborhoods are often bypassed for infrastructure investments, Galperin said, meaning families in these areas typically have fewer internet providers to choose from — and must often pay higher prices for access. (His team has created even more detailed maps illustrating this problem.)

This digital divide means that, during the coronavirus crisis, some people will be unable to work remotely or access a virtual doctor’s appointment.

But right now, Galperin gets the sense that the crisis is most acute in education. For years, he’s been preaching about the “homework gap” — the disadvantages faced by public school students who lacked a device or internet connection at home that were needed to do meaningful work on their assignments.

Most teachers have stories — even from before the pandemic — about students camping out in the parking lots of Starbucks or McDonald’s or public libraries, trying to access the wifi to complete and submit assignments on their phones.

But during the pandemic, Galperin fears this “gap” is no longer only about homework.

“It’s literally the education gap,” he said. “Kids won’t be able to be educated … Kids have been literally dropping off the map because they’re unable to connect with their school.”

This report is reprinted with permission from Southern California Public Radio. © 2020 Southern California Public Radio. All rights reserved.

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