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The COVID-19 pandemic has fundamentally disrupted all areas of society including how students obtain their education. In California, as in much of the world, schools at all levels closed their campuses this spring to adhere to social distancing guidelines. Fortunately, we live in a digital age and fast-adapting institutions were able to transition to a virtual learning environment that allows students to continue their education journey online. However, this assumes that these students have home access to fast, broadband internet connection, but data shows that this is not always the case.

The current health and economic crisis has laid bare the social, racial and economic inequities faced by African American and Latinx students. The digital divide is an example of these inequities as it draws clear lines around race and class. A 2017 study by the Public Policy Institute of California found that 74% of California homes had broadband subscriptions, but only between 54% and 67% of low-income, less educated, rural, African American, and Latinx households had such access. Further, 25% of low-income households without broadband cited affordability as a key barrier. 

Earlier this spring, Michelson 20MM conducted an in-depth market mapping of the digital equity landscape. We met with over 30 advocacy groups, foundations, lawmakers, internet service providers, and digital equity practitioners from CA and across the nation. Our landscape analysis of the digital divide in CA and nationally found that high-quality, high-speed internet is increasingly considered a civil/human right by digital equity experts, many of whom have been advocating for both federal and state-level legislative changes to advance policies that recognize internet connectivity and digital literacy as necessities for success in a 21st century educational environments, workforces and societies. Our team’s research also verified the learnings of digital equity practitioners around how holistic solutions to the digital divide can truly be sustainable and successful––they must address the three “legs” of the digital equity stool: 1) (internet) access, 2) up-to-date technology (devices/hardware and software), and 3) digital literacy resources/tech support.

Ever committed to educational justice, Michelson 20MM is positioned to become a leading philanthropic convener and coordinating body for digital equity in California. After being recently deputized by the Office of Governor Gavin Newsom to support the public sector’s near- and long-term goals of meeting the needs of California families newly forced to transition to full-time distance learning, our leadership and staff has begun researching best paths forward for our Foundation’s role in a multi-pronged, statewide strategy for digital equity.

In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, Michelson 20MM teamed up with the Foundation for L.A. Community Colleges and other funders to assist LACCD students who were forced to transition to remote learning mid-term. The partnership is providing 20,000 students with access to Chromebooks, internet hot spots, low-cost home internet connections, and digital literacy workshops. 

We also partnered with Education Trust–West (ETW), awarding them a Michelson Spark Grant to publish the Centering Higher Ed Students Experiences Survey, intended for college and university students across California. The survey collected student responses logging what COVID-19 related resources and support they have received from their campuses. Students also shared their perceptions of the effectiveness of institutional strategies. ETW will leverage the results to digitally map the California higher education system’s responses, any persistent gaps in digital access, and the failures and successes of distance learning. Equipped with this useful information, school administrators and legislators will be able to develop solutions that ensure all California college students are set up to succeed in their higher education journeys.

“The new focus on online learning is pushing us all to address the digital and equity gap that has long been a barrier to a better life for low-income and underrepresented students,” says Gary K. Michelson, M.D., Founder of Michelson 20MM. “Education Trust-West is doing remarkable work in making sure students are counted and their voices heard so that leaders in positions of power can construct a learning environment where all students are able to reach their full potential.” 

Michelson 20MM champions greater equity and access in higher education by supporting organizations that help students get into college, stay enrolled until graduation, and enroll if they’ve withdrawn. The pandemic and resulting financial crisis are presenting novel challenges to college students, but Education Trust-West is making strides in closing the digital gap and marshaling the resources students need during these extraordinary times. This is the second Spark Grant awarded to ETW, a previous award supported the development of the California Digital Financial Aid Awareness Toolkit aimed at increasing rates of completed financial aid applications, specifically for low-income students and students of color. We are thrilled to continue furthering the organization’s tremendous efforts in driving college success.