George Boardman: Students are falling into ‘homework gap’ because of poor broadband access | TheUnion.com
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George Boardman: Students are falling into ‘homework gap’ because of poor broadband access

George Boardman
Columnist
George Boardman

Observations from the center stripe: COVID-19 edition

IT’S CLEAR that not all grocery stores are concerned about the safety of their employees … I’M AMAZED that some local businesses are now deciding it’s finally time to do business on the internet. Where have they been the last 20 years? ... HOW COME Placer County names the cities where coronavirus cases occur, but all we get is west county and east county? ... THE NOW ex-captain of the USS Theodore Roosevelt should have known that embarrassing the Navy brass is not a good career move … I’M BEGINNING to think the TV network news programs are trying to scare us to death … HOW MANY people who can afford to pay their rent will stop now that they can get a couple of months of forbearance? ...

Parents of students in Nevada County are getting to experience the “homework gap” in real time as the coronavirus pandemic forces schools to utilize distance learning. In this case, you can’t blame the educators.

The “homework gap” I’m referring to is the estimated 12 million children in this country who have difficulty completing routine homework assignments and other projects online because they lack reliable home internet access.

It’s hard to know how many students fall into that gap here, but it appears to be a significant percentage of our dwindling school-age population. The county Office of Education has said it isn’t feasible to go to 100% online education, and Superintendent Brett McFadden estimates that 15 to 20% of students in the Nevada Joint Union High School District “do not have reliable internet at home.”

The problem is real for many students. Here’s Anjali Figueira-Santos, a student at Forest Charter School and an intern at The Union, writing in the paper: “I’m very lucky to have an internet connection with our recent bouts of snow, but one of the first things a friend of mine brought up was ‘What about the kids who don’t have WiFi?’

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“At school, kids are able to work in the computer lab, to make up for an inability to connect to any websites at home. Now that classes have moved online, even kids with just slow internet are having issues uploading and downloading information.”

So schools are utilizing a variety of strategies to educate our children, who won’t return to the classroom this school year: Makeshift video conference classrooms, recorded lessons, and instructional packets.

Chromebooks are being handed out to students who don’t have computers at home. Our local high schools have hot spots in their parking lots where students can download materials before going back home to complete assignments, and Noah Levinson, principal of Ghidotti Early College High School, said he is mailing thumb drives to students, who can then upload the content.

Other students in the state are in the same boat, but some of them have corporate angels we lack up here. Take Facebook, whose headquarters is located in the Sequoia Joint Union High School District in prosperous San Mateo County. The Sequoia district serves some of the poorest students in the county, so Facebook has committed $250,000 to create 2,000 WiFi hot spots and pay for a year of WiFi for low income students who don’t have a reliable connection.

Google has announced it will pay for 100,000 WiFi hot spots, primarily in rural areas. The state Department of Education will decide who gets them, so our local school districts can get in line and beg.

The alternative in Nevada County is an inadequate broadband system, the victim of telecommunications giants seeking a maximum return on their investment and somnolent leadership at the county level. The patch work strategy devised by the Board of Supervisors won’t come anywhere near to solving the problem.

There’s much chatter in the business community about the need for state-of-the-art broadband that will attract jobs that keep our children here. But what’s the point of attracting those jobs if 15 to 20 percent of our high school students have trouble acquiring the knowledge and skills needed to fill those jobs?

Unwelcome mat

It’s a remarkable turn of events for an area with a Blanche DuBois economy (we depend on the kindness of strangers), but Nevada County is pulling the welcome mat out from under visitors.

Truckee is actually telling people to stay away. As Visit Tahoe posted on its Facebook page: “With immense compassion for everyone’s wish to be in the fresh mountain air, now is not the time to visit Truckee.”

“We’ve been talking about a complete, cold stop on all advertising,” said Colleen Dalton of Visit Tahoe. “That goes from us to my colleagues as far down as Bishop.”

The cities of Truckee, Grass Valley and Nevada City, along with the county, are discouraging people with Airbnb and other short term rentals from seeking customers outside the area. Flatlanders with second homes in the foothills and Tahoe area are being asked — in some cases, warned — to stay away for fear they might bring the coronavirus with them.

All of this was triggered by events the weekend of March 14-15, the first good weekend of fresh snow is many weeks. That’s also when 15 major ski resorts in the Tahoe area began shutting down in the interest of social distancing, leaving thousands of tourists with no place to go.

That produced a run on gas stations and grocery stores, packed restaurants and bars, and created traffic snarls. “It had been panic and madness since the weekend,” said one long-time Tahoe resident. Another local resident said there will be “blood in the streets” if flatlanders try to seek refuge from the pandemic.

This is a mini-version of a national trend. Rhode Island state troopers were actually trying to bar cars with New York state license plates until Gov. Andrew Cuomo threatened to sue, residents of an island off Maine barricaded some strangers, and states like Florida and Texas are asking visitors from coronavirus hot spots to self quarantine.

None of this will encourage the rapid return of tourists once the pandemic has passed. Visit California, the state’s tourism authority, estimates the state could lose a total of $54.5 billion in travel spending through the remainder of the year, a significant bite from an industry that was projected to generate $145 billion this year.

Nevada County will feel the pain. Visit California calculated the county attracted $361 million in visitor spending in 2018, the last year for which statistics are available. That meant over 3,700 jobs and $31.6 million in state and local taxes.

Some of that is already gone. Then there’s the lost tax revenue from businesses that won’t survive the current shutdown. With the new fiscal year less than three months away, I suspect the budget-cutting knives are being sharpened in the Rood Center and city halls as I write this.

George Boardman lives at Lake of the Pines. His column is published Mondays by The Union. Write to him at boredgeorgeman@gmail.com.


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