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COVID-19 crisis shows need to close digital divide

State legislature should keep funding for alternative education programs such as Calbright College

By Jim Wunderman

The world has changed.

Over the past two months, California families and students of all backgrounds have had to adjust to the new world of remote work and distance learning as state and local governments implement plans to combat the spread of COVID-19.

Prior to the pandemic, there were plenty of robust discussions and actions taken by the public and private sectors to call attention to what is known as the “digital divide,” or the uneven distribution of communication technologies and internet access within various communities.

However, the aggressive spread of the coronavirus has exposed a deeper rift than many people were previously aware. And educational institutions have had to accelerate implementing strategies to close the digital divide and better prepare our students for the jobs of tomorrow. Many school districts in California have provided their students with technological devices, but thousands of students remain without access to technology.

According to CalMatters, roughly 1.2 million students lack high-speed internet or a computing device at home. Further research by the Public Policy institute of California shows residents who lack internet access are disproportionately low-income, in rural areas, or Black or Latino.

It is quite troubling that a huge swath of California students may enter the workforce unprepared or without having been familiar with current technology and skills for the new economy. As these students transition to adulthood, resources and options to further enhance and educate oneself should be available, especially given that our education system may have failed individuals in the first place.

During this pandemic, large companies have been very aggressive when it comes to making the digital transformations necessary to continue supporting consumers. Webinars, online courses and other do-it-yourself skill guides are all now very prevalent in this new world. While many companies no longer require college degrees, they’ve made it clear that skills-oriented job training and creativity will always be necessary.

It is also fairly clear that many of the jobs that have been lost due to the coronavirus may never return. Research from the University of Chicago finds that for every 10 layoffs caused by the COVID-19, 42 percent of those layoffs will result in permanent job loss. Those are sobering and daunting numbers that should bring everyone pause.

So, what options will be available to help those students and individuals in the middle of their careers who fell victim to the digital divide or job loss due to the coronavirus?

The answer lies in flexible educational programs such as Calbright College. Established in 2018, Calbright College was created by the State of California to address education inequity and help millions of underserved residents get access to higher paying jobs. The program is focused on career development and allows adult learners to learn at their own pace, utilizing a combination of online classes, mobile apps, and in-person apprenticeships to provide working adults with the skills they need. Crucially, Calbright is also taking on the digital divide by making Wi-Fi and Chromebooks available to those students who require them, opening up online earning to previously underserved communities.

These educational programs are necessary, as our current educational system currently does not do enough to mold our current talent pool. This is evidenced by income disparities in the state and the fact that many Black and Latino workers are still less likely to maintain higher paying jobs than their White counterparts.

The Legislature has an opportunity to address this rift by promoting policies that move our educational system from one focused on standardization to one concentrated on customization. In our ever changing global economy, students will need to be flexible, adaptable and comfortable with current and arising technologies.

Making these changes will take continued investment and a new approach to education. The Legislature and the Governor should continue their commitment to ensuring technological resources are available to every student, while recognizing that the nature of our imperfect system means some may face more obstacles than others.

Let us work together to eliminate those obstacles. It is imperative that the State Budget continues to fund alternative educational programs, such as Calbright College, that help close the educational and socioeconomic gaps of inequity that remain in California.

Jim Wunderman is president and CEO of the Bay Area Council, a local business advocacy group.

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