Distance learning. (Photo illustration/Freeimages)

As the effort to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus pandemic in the Bay Area has closed thousands of school campuses and forced millions of students to adapt to “distance learning” strategies, a Santa Clara County supervisor is proposing a countywide effort to help bridge the digital divide.

Supervisor Dave Cortese will introduce a plan at the Board of Supervisors meeting Tuesday to bring digital devices and internet access to 15,000 of the county’s neediest families.

If approved, the proposal would direct county staff to look for ways the board can partner with the Santa Clara County Office of Education on what could be a $1 million initial investment to provide families with wireless services and devices like laptops, cellphones and tablets, Cortese said at an online news conference Monday.

“Our schools remain closed with no end in sight,” he said.

In the age of COVID-19, a lack of internet access prevents students from attending classes via video conferencing apps, turning in coursework and availing themselves of online educational resources and counseling, among other things.

“They’re just out of luck in that situation and we’ve got to change that,” Cortese said.

The digital divide also prevents families struggling with unemployment from finding work and inhibits their ability to access health care, food programs and other social safety net programs.

“Whether or not a family has broadband is a dividing line in our community,” said Maria Noel Fernandez, deputy executive director of Working Partnerships USA and Silicon Valley Rising, which helped coordinate the announcement.

Cortese’s proposal calls for getting “11,000 connectivity devices and 14,000 devices, such as laptops or tablets,” into the homes of families identified by the Office of Education as having the most urgent need for help.

“These families consist of those who are receiving government support during this crisis, including MediCal recipients, CalFresh and CalWORKS clients, WIC beneficiaries, foster and resource families, and other low-income community members in need,” the proposal states.

Mary Ann Dewan, County Superintendent of Schools, said individual school sites and school districts are working hard to address the issue, too, but they need help.

“We can’t rely on school-by-school and district-by-district Band-Aid efforts,” Dewan said.

Maimona Afzal Berta, vice president of the Franklin-McKinley School District Board of Education, said the pandemic has exposed and exacerbated existing equity issues and the scope of the problem is too large for individual districts to solve alone.

“It’s not financially sustainable for school districts to do this on our own,” Berta said.

Even San Jose, which has a $24 million program to bring free internet services to some of its least connected neighborhoods, will benefit from a countywide strategy, said San Jose City Councilwoman Sylvia Arenas.

“The county and schools can move really quickly on short-term solutions,” Arenas said. “It’s vital that we as a city move on the long-term problems.”

Cortese said the initial spending for his proposal would not have to come out of the county’s general fund, but might be found in federal COVID-19 relief funding or in existing education programs funded by the county.

Kiley Russell writes primarily for Pagransen on issues related to equity and the environment. A Bay Area native, he has lived most of his life in Oakland. He studied journalism at San Francisco State University, worked for the Associated Press and the former Contra Costa Times, among other outlets. He has covered everything from state legislatures, local governments, federal and state courts, crime, growth and development, political campaigns of various stripes, wildfires and the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.