District fights to conquer digital divide in Silicon Valley

Mountain View Whisman is trying to close gaps for its underserved students but internet is a problem, even in the most high-tech area of the country
By: | October 27, 2020
Mountain View, Calif., where Google headquarters and the Whismer School District are located. Andrew Holt/Getty Images

The crossroads of the digital divide intersect squarely at the Mountain View Whisman School District in California. The area that serves 5,200 children sits in the shadows of a few tech giants in Silicon Valley, including Google, Microsoft and LinkedIn.

Yet, some of the schools in the district do not enjoy the same benefits as their neighbors, or even those in surrounding communities like Palo Alto and beyond.

Students here come largely from lower-income families. Some are homeless. Many struggle with getting internet. And as their schools continue to operate remotely, their district is having to find creative solutions to help them keep pace and stay healthy and safe.

Among the many gaps they’ve had to bridge, superintendent Ayinde Rudolph and his team have delivered some 30,000 meals to families since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. They’ve ensured all students have devices. They’ve created support pods for students, including those who are homeless. They’ve partnered with a local hospital to get kids tested. But the internet … that’s a problem that miraculously, in this hotbed of high tech, they can’t seem to overcome.

“We don’t have community Wi-Fi in our area,” Rudolph says. “You would think in a place where Google exists, we would. And that’s not the case. So, we’re actually trying to work on a solution.”

At one point Mountain View received $100,000 as part of a state initiative to get devices to students (Rudolph says it cost the district $3.6 million) but it did not get hotspots that were given out to other communities in distant districts such as Fresno and Castro Valley.

“I can look across the bridge, it’s a two-mile walk, they’re not even thinking about internet in this area,” he says. “I think making the tech companies aware of it, is a big issue. I need a solution in an urban center, in a city where the city doesn’t view it as their obligation and tech companies don’t view it as obligation. But the school district needs it to function. We have to come up with a solution to address this.”

That sentiment is being echoed in other districts across the country.

“I think the challenge for all superintendents is that isn’t really an issue that we should be facing alone or trying to solve,” Rudolph says. “We shouldn’t be trying to be all things to all people. Someone should be stepping up and saying, look, here’s how we’re going to do the internet. And that’s just not the case. And I think that is what’s creating stressors right now.”

The why behind virtual

Ayinde Rudolph

The short answer to why Mountain View Whisman hasn’t just abandoned the virtual idea is two-fold.

First, Rudolph says, it just isn’t safe to return to schools in person. Latinos comprise 40% of the population at Mountain View Whisman’s schools, and they have been the hardest hit of all subgroups by COVID-19 in California. Second, distance learning is working, although implementing it didn’t go well at first.

“In the spring, we got eviscerated across the board,” Rudolph says. “It didn’t make a difference who the group was. They were like, this is horrible. Even board members who had kids said, we can do a lot better.”

With time to regroup, time to get devices and time to get teachers trained up, the bleak situation improved, to the point where few are now questioning the decision to go virtual despite the obvious hurdles that exist.

“Now people are like, wow,” Rudolph says. “In September, it became, ‘why would I give up the quality of distance learning to get two days in person instruction and the rest asynchronous?’ I’m not trying to say it’s the best, but if digital learning was so bad, like it was in the spring, then we would have no choice but to return.”

Rudolph understands the divide – and the need for many parents to work – but he still stands firmly on the promise he made several months ago.

“I know some of you want to open, I know this is going to be hard, but I’m standing by our principles around safety. And we’ll watch to see what happens. As we’re heading into flu season, I’m a little concerned. And the data is just not there yet. What happens when you do a complete reopening?”

Of course, he understands the inherent peril in that statement and like most educators, admits, there’s no substitute for in-person learning.

“I would say at some point, we’ve got learn how to live with it. At some point, we’ve got to get past this moment.”

When they do, they’re already prepared. He says they have “more than enough PPE for everybody, a warehouse full of cleaning supplies, our air systems have been upgraded and everything’s touchless – soap dispenser, faucets. We went above and beyond from a safety standpoint.”

Taking care of teachers

The dedication of teachers in the Mountain View Whisman district are one of the reasons why it is beating the odds. They too have had to fight through the digital divide. When the district shut things down in March, many teachers lost access in one form or another.

“It’s a lesson we learned,” he says. “When we closed the buildings, we said no … don’t show up. We don’t want COVID. Then we started hearing, my internet isn’t working and I don’t have this equipment. So we’ve opened up our doors, and we’ve given them the option that, if want to teach in here, you can. But if you can’t, we understand.”

Approximately, 60% of our teachers come in every day.

The district has made sure they are taken care of. They have always provided them with Macbooks, but have given them iPads, too. They’ve given all IA’s Chromebooks so they can help students. The district has a virtual learning team, but Rudolph says, “we need to rethink how kids interact with teachers on a day to day basis.”

Simply reaching some of them, the ones who need it most, is still a challenge. Their stories are heartbreaking.

“You could walk down a street, and you see an apartment complex and look into the window and see five or six bunk beds in one room,” Rudolph says. “And you realize, these families are making some conscious decisions. We see it showing up in food. We see it showing up with our homeless students. But we’ve also started noticing it showing in the internet divide, too.”

For now, out of an abundance of precaution, they’ll remain remote. When they do return, they will start in a hybrid model first.

“Everyone applauds us for our approach on safety,” he says. “We’re working on an internet plan so that we can solve the Zoom issue. Distance learning, the reaction to that has been somewhat mixed. But that’s to be expected, because there are people who: feel  their kids should be in; there are people who are just tired; and there are people who are really afraid.

“While they may not agree with whether or not we open or reopen, what is universal is the fact that the distance learning that we provide is so much more. I get more complaints about the fact that it’s too much. I’ll take ‘it’s too much’ any day of the week. Kudos to the teachers and staff for all the work they’re doing.”

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