The picture went viral almost immediately: Two little girls sitting on a curb outside a Taco Bell on East Alisal Street in Salinas, heads down and focused on the tablets in their laps and the notebooks spread out on the ground in front of them. They didn’t have internet at home, and so there they sat, using the fast-food restaurant’s wireless network to get their work done. Their faces are blurred out in the photo.

Among the tone-deaf questions I heard: Where are their parents? (My guess, at work, because not everyone has the luxury of working from home.) Why don’t they have internet at home? (Because internet costs more money than many people have and infrastructure in certain neighborhoods in Salinas is abysmal.) Why can’t they use the public library? (Because the libraries are closed because there’s a pandemic.) And of course, why aren’t they in school? (See previous sentence regarding the pandemic.)

If there’s a single picture that best exemplifies the economic disparity that exists in Monterey County, and how the pandemic is pushing the haves and have-nots even farther apart, I’m unaware of its existence. In certain areas of the county, it’s learning pods and private tutors. In others, it’s little kids throwing down on a sidewalk to snag an internet connection so they can get their work done.

The girls, as it turns out, weren’t alone – they were with a babysitter, but that sitter also doesn’t have internet at home (there’s that pesky digital divide again). And the mother of one of those children works at that Taco Bell.

But once the picture was posted, the finger-pointing began as to what school district was responsible for the lack of technology. It was pretty quickly determined by the internet mob the girls attend Salinas City Elementary School District schools and it was also pretty quickly announced that the district had provided the girls with a wireless hotspot to use, either at their home or, presumably, at the sitter’s home, so they didn’t have to seek out open connections in public places.

In California, 17 percent of K-12 students, or just over 1 million children, don’t have devices at home for distance learning, while 25 percent, or just over 1.5 million, lack adequate access to the internet. And 60 percent of those students who lack internet access are Black, Latinx or Indigenous Americans. Those statistics come from the nonprofit Common Sense Media, which in June released a report titled “Teaching Through the Digital Divide,” based on analysis by Boston Consulting Group.

In Monterey County, meanwhile, 10,000 students lack good internet access and 8,200 students lack access to a device to use the internet in the first place. It’s worse in rural areas, to the point that the Monterey County Office of Education has partnered with Monterey-Salinas Transit to deploy buses equipped with Wi-Fi to neighborhoods where the districts have identified the highest needs for access.

SCESD spokesperson Rick Gebin says the district has enough Chromebooks for every student – 8,245, to be exact – but there are families that haven’t picked theirs up yet, despite repeated outreach efforts.

The bigger problem remains connectivity, and the problem with connectivity is one of infrastructure. The district distributed 1,500 hotspots and will receive 2,500 more from the state. And while that isn’t enough for every student, even some of those who already have them can’t go online.

“Hotspots pick up the strongest signal, but there are certain areas where that signal is really low or even in dead space. Families are experiencing difficulty using the devices,” Gebin says.

Of the press attention brought by the picture, Gebin says this: “If the district has to be the face of this discussion, if that’s the most equitable for the kids, at least it’s getting the attention it needs.”

I talked to a friend who grew up on the East Side and works in education. They said, of those kids at Taco Bell: “Gotta respect that grind.”

And that’s true. I wish that kids that age, in this time and place – just 45 miles or so down Highway 101 from the technology capital of the world – didn’t have to grind quite so hard to get an education while many adults shrug and avert their eyes.

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(1) comment

Art Nants

While I certainly don't doubt there is a digital divide. The fact that the mom was working inside and they had a babysitter with them constitutes another sensationalization by the news media. The bigger crime is why doesn't Taco Bell have tables outdoors for their customers?

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