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Kern County looks to bridge the digital divide to provide better internet access for students, residents

Posted: 5:48 PM, Aug 15, 2022
Updated: 2022-08-15 22:24:12-04
Student Works on Homework (FILE)
Library Internet Access (FILE)
Library Internet Access (FILE)
Library Computer with Internet Access (FILE)

BAKERSFIELD, Calif. (KERO) — Before school districts provided hot spots and Chromebooks, many relied on parking spots near fast food restaurants or libraries to keep up with schools going virtual. Still, officials say that was just the first phase of the digital divide, and the efforts don’t stop there. They will look to increase access to not just libraries and schools.

"Really it comes down to students who have access to technology and internet and students who do not," said Anthony Davis, chief technology officer for the Kern County Superintendent of Schools.

Davis says that although the latest census data shows 83 percent of homes in the county have access to the internet, they are working to ensure that 17 percent don’t get left behind.

"We have a lot of small school districts that frankly struggle where maybe the only connectivity in town is the connectivity that is being provided by the school."

Davis says because they have spent grant funds to set up towers near areas like Caliente and Lost Hills to get wifi to the schools, it’s not enough as kids need it at home as well.

"Because of the limitations on technology [we have] enough connectivity for the school. We don’t have enough to supply the full community."

And that is the case for most of the rural communities in Kern.

Explains Fahra Dardedia, a library associate with Kern County Library, "We have about 76,000 people that use our wifi services here in Kern County and you can definitely tell the need is there. Our facilities are used to do interviews and people bringing their own devices for homework help and different things like that, so definitely the need is there in the community."

Daredia says they have seen website interaction increase in the past two years, not just with kids but also with adults relying on their services.

But meanwhile, Davis says the biggest push for a solution is for fiber to be laid out throughout these communities. Both Lost Hills and Kernville are on the state list of areas getting that upgrade.

"Now we have better opportunities for the neighborhoods and the actual community to get connectivity. So it doesn’t just help schools and libraries, it helps everyone."

How to Get Help to Pay for Internet Access

23ABC In-Depth: How to get help to pay for internet access in Kern County

Although the push is focused on getting access for rural communities, for those who are in areas where the internet is available but maybe can not afford it, the Kern County Superintendent of Schools wants to make sure families know about a state-sponsored program to help pay for that service.

The internet is something many take for granted, and although kids are no longer going to school online, having internet access has become integral to academic success.

Hot spots have become a lifeline for many families without internet access. But before school districts lent them out during the pandemic, families would drive to parking lots outside the library to keep up with schools going virtual. But officials say these devices are not ideal and that in-home wifi would be much better.

"For younger kids, if they have to have a hot spot and Chromebook and they both have to be charged, that can be complicated so if we can get families on a more wired connection then there is less for the district to troubleshoot," said Davis.

That is why the Kern County Superintendent of Schools wants the community to know about the Affordable Connectivity Program. Those who are eligible are those that have a household member that is enrolled in programs such as free or reduced school lunches, CalFresh, SNAP, Medi-Cal, among others.

Who is Eligible for the Affordable Connectivity Program?

YOUR HOUSEHOLD IS ELIGIBLE FOR ACP BENEFITS IF: Your Household Income is $53,000 or less if you’re a family of 4 (FOR EACH ADDITIONAL MEMBER, ADD $9000).

OR

A household member is enrolled in at least ONE (1) of the following Federal Assistance Programs:

  • Lifeline
  • Free or Reduced School Lunch Program, CEP Schools
  • CalFresh or SNAP
  • Medi-Cal or Supplemental Security Income (SSI)
  • Pell Grant
  • WIC (Women, Infants & Children)
  • Federal Public Housing Assistance (FPHA)
  • Veterans Pension and Survivors Benefit

OR

A household member is enrolled in at least ONE (1) of the following Support Services for Indigenous Communities:

  • Tribal Programs for Residents on Qualifying Tribal Lands
  • Bureau of Indian Affairs General Assistance
  • Tribal TANF
  • Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations
  • Tribal Head Start (must meet relevant income qualifying standard)

According to Davis, the program provides "up to $30 per family for low-income students."

Davis adds that despite making that help available, they have seen hesitation in the Kern Community.

"Because it does require personal information, so if you have undocumented families there seems to be this resistance because they're afraid that if I provide information maybe it's gonna lead to some other issues. And so we're trying to educate and bridge that gap so that some of these students have an opportunity to get."

Because bridging the digital divide is not just about accessing the internet and computers but also knowing how to use them, the library offers resources for those skills.

Back-to-School Costs Rising

23ABC In-Depth: Back-to-School Costs Rising

Unfortunately because of inflation, computers and other tech devices are not the only back-to-school items of concern for many families.

New information from Klover, a company that collects spending data from its more than 3 million consumers as well as point of sale pricing data, found that prices have gone up for most items on annual back-to-school shopping lists.

Klover reports that items such as scotch tape and sharpies have seen some of the highest price jumps year-over-year. For all varieties of 3M's scotch-branded tape the average price surged nearly 70 percent this year compared to 2021. They also report that the cost of Elmer's glue is up 30 percent this year.

Elsewhere, prices for popular Jansport backpacks are about 2 percent higher, and Nike sneakers have increased by 12 percent.