Photo of Kids Forced to Use Taco Bell WiFi for Homework Is Startling Reminder That Many Families Have No Internet

An alarming photo of two girls using the fast-food chain's WiFi for remote school work is bringing attention to the fact that millions of kids lack the tech required for their education, especially in a pandemic where distance learning has become the norm.

As the country continues to face the COVID-19 pandemic, many school districts have returned to virtual learning. But, as a viral photo out of Salinas, California proves, many students are ill-equipped to learn exclusively, or even partially, online. The heartbreaking image shows two young girls sitting in Taco Bell's parking lot with their laptops, trying to get their schoolwork done by using the fast-food restaurant's WiFi. And it's an issue facing thousands of families across the country.

Monterey County Supervisor Luis Alejo tweeted the photo after seeing it on Instagram, writing, "We must do better and solve this digital divide once & for all for all California students."

Kevin de León, president pro tempore of the California Senate, also shared the photo on his social media, citing an April survey by SOMOS that found that 40 percent of Latinos don’t have internet access.

The girls were immediately identified by Salinas City Elementary School District (SCESD) once the photo went viral. Amy Ish, president of the district, said in a statement, "The digital divide is very real and delays in receiving needed technology are a statewide concern. We are grateful the state is making technology a priority and look forward to receiving these hotspots in our district."

SCESD then gave the family a hotspot so the students could access classroom instructions from their home. The district has so far distributed 8,245 Chromebooks and 1,500 hotspots while awaiting 2,500 additional hotspots.

Approximately 15 to 16 million K-12 public school students in the U.S. live in homes that lack high-speed internet and/or a distance learning device.

At the same time, a woman named Jackie Lopez started a GoFundMe after finding the girls' mother, Juana, a migrant worker. “I asked her if I could get her girls a desk for distant learning and she mentioned there was no space in their home for that,” Lopez wrote on the GoFundMe page. "She then said she shared a small bedroom with her 3 girls in the home she was living in."

She also learned that the family was at risk of being evicted, which led her to start the fundraiser, which has since raised over $129,000.

The Digital Divide Is a National Issue

While the photo might be throwing the national spotlight on California, it illustrates a wide-sweeping issue present in all 50 states. Approximately 15 to 16 million K-12 public school students in the U.S. live in homes that lack high-speed internet and/or a distance learning device (e.g., a laptop or tablet), according to an analysis from Common Sense Media and the Boston Consulting Group published in June.

The report pointed out that while the digital divide affects students in all types of communities, it's "most pronounced in rural communities and households with Black, Latinx, and Native American students."

They also found that southern states tend to exhibit the largest digital divide for K-12 students. Mississippi, Louisiana, Arkansas, and Alabama show the largest deficit by proportion, and Texas, California, and Florida the largest gaps by population.

Laptops Are in Short Supply

And while many districts nationwide are able to lend lower-income students laptops, others are struggling to acquire adequate supplies. In a recent investigation, the Associated Press stated that the world’s three biggest computer companies, Lenovo, HP, and Dell, have told school districts they have a shortage of nearly 5 million laptops—an issue that's been exacerbated by the Trump administration's sanctions on Chinese suppliers.

Tom Baumgarten, superintendent of the Morongo Unified School District in California’s Mojave Desert, where most of the district's 8,000 students need loaner computers, told the AP, "This is going to be like asking an artist to paint a picture without paint. You can’t have a kid do distance learning without a computer." Yet, the district currently has only enough laptops to serve about half of the students. (They reportedly ordered 5,000 HP laptops in July, but the delivery date has been pushed several times and is currently set for October.)

How You Can Help

In addition to supporting Lopez' GoFundMe or other similar fundraisers for kids in your community, contact your local representatives and your congressperson to be sure that school funding, like that specified in the next federal coronavirus relief package, covers the technology students clearly need as they navigate a new school year amidst this crisis.

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