The San Francisco Unified School District is calling on the tech industry to provide assistance for students who are learning at home during the pandemic. (Courtesy photo)

San Francisco schools estimate $25m needed to close digital divide

Private donations being sought to fund internet access, technology

San Francisco schools are seeking $25 million in private donations to close a digital divide exacerbated by the pandemic, and some officials are calling on the City’s tech industry to step up.

San Francisco Unified School District, facing a structural deficit and increased needs during a pandemic, is raising $25 million to meet internet and technology needs as it enters the fall semester with all students learning remotely.

SFUSD estimates it will need up to 25,000 devices and WiFi access for as many as 14,000 students. The district handed out 13,000 Chromebooks and almost 4,000 WiFi hotspots after campuses suddenly closed in March.

Internet costs totaled $900,000 for three months of service, according to SFUSD spokesperson Laura Dudnick. Connectivity is estimated to cost up to $7 million for the year, prompting questions about whether the tech industry is profiting off the state of emergency.

More than half of the district’s students live at or below the poverty line and a quarter have no reliable internet access, according to SFUSD.

SFUSD is now working to expand the distribution of tech devices to younger grades while also preparing for the strict regimen required for in-person learning. Already struggling with an anticipated $22 million deficit for the upcoming year — although that may be eased by $15 million included in Mayor London Breed’s proposed budget – officials have cited national estimates that the average district would need $27 million more to safely bring students back.

To meet that need, the district is seeking $25 million in donations through Spark SF Public Schools, a nonprofit serving the district, to close the divide.

Sara and Evan Williams, a Twitter co-founder, donated $10 million to the initiative this week. Before the Williams’ donation, Spark had raised $5.1 million since March, Dudnick said.

“Taking a lead on this is important to us because we know inequity doesn’t just happen,” said Sara Williams in a statement. “We let it happen. Evan and I believe that change can only start when we provide equal access to education.”

The ask for funds comes as frustration with the tech industry builds. Last month during a Board of Education meeting last month, Superintendent Vincent Matthews appealed to internet providers to reduce their rates.

Board President Mark Sanchez noted that California schools have relied on Apple products at mostly full price for 30 years but the Bay Area tech giant — which earns more than many countries — has “never given to education in any meaningful way.

“Because there’s such a high need, they’re in a position to make even more profits and it’s on the backs of, in this case, school districts who are relying on that service now more than ever,” Sanchez said. “If there was ever a time to be compassionate in giving, now is it.”

School Board member Gabriela Lopez is also frustrated by the high cost of connectivity while responding to students’ basic needs.

“We as a City should be pushing back on that,” Lopez said. “That’s really exploitation at its finest. It’s very disappointing knowing that some of our families can’t learn in this space because of how they’re trying to take advantage of the profiting.”

Matt Alexander, former principal of June Jordan School for Equity and a school board candidate, commends those with wealth that donate but, ideally, the investment would be through a different tax structure.

“Our budget deficit is pocket change for these folks,” Alexander said. “I think it’s a little crazy that we live in one of the wealthiest cities on the planet, the tech hub of the world, and we still have families that don’t have good internet access. We need to have a tax structure that funds our public schools.”

The district will begin distributing devices starting next week but notes that depending on how much funding comes, it could take a few weeks for every student to receive one.

imojadad@sfexaminer.com

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