Coronavirus: Silicon Valley group aims to give computer, internet access for students learning from home

SAN JOSE, Calif. (KGO) -- The shift to online classes has left potentially tens of thousands of students behind because they're at home but don't have laptops or internet connections. A campaign is underway to solve this problem in the next 30 days.

With libraries closed and the need to stay at home, some students have lost their access to WiFi networks to do homework. Now that classes have shifted to the internet, they're cut off from school and could be falling behind.

"They're falling through the cracks. That's exactly what's happening," said David Witkowski, executive director of civic technology initiatives at Joint Venture Silicon Valley.

By some estimates, there could be 11,000 students in Silicon Valley left out of the switch to distance learning.

Despite the region's reputation for being the most connected place on earth, some families in the Valley still don't have laptops or a reliable internet connection.

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San Jose Unified, the largest South Bay district, has tried to reach out to the families of its 29,000 students. But some have not responded to email or calls. So Joint Venture Silicon Valley has launched an ambitious plan to solve this problem in 30 days.

"Some students will move ahead and others will not," said Witkowski. "And so there's an opportunity gap that's being created by this lack of connectivity."

However, there are roadblocks, one of which is a shortage of hot spots. They are portable devices that turn cell signals into WiFi connections.

"People bought them up early on when a lot of people were going home, being told to work from home," Witkowski said. "Companies handed them hot spots, here's your connection to the internet. So now we're having problems sourcing those."

Meantime, he's trying to work with cell carriers to identify where signals are weak or non-existent and fix that. He's seeking donations of old Chromebooks, the laptop of choice at many schools.

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San Jose Unified has given out about 500 of them to students who need them. Deploying them and hot spots is another challenge.

"We can't put ourselves at risk or put them at risk for social distancing so it would be one thing to say, well, I'm going to come into your home and set up some sort of hardware. But I can't do that," he said.

Funding is another challenge. It could run into the millions of dollars. He hopes to tap into federal sources and Silicon Valley philanthropists.

The digital divide has been a persistent problem, but the disruption in connecting students to online classes could prevent high school juniors and seniors especially from meeting requirements for college admission.

Witkowski sees his 30-day mission as formidable, but he also points out that this is not a short-term problem.

Distance learning could be needed not just now, but for months ahead if sheltering at home extends into the fall, or if returns with a new wave of infections.

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