IMPERIAL COUNTY — Imperial County Superintendent of Schools Dr. Todd Finnell was invited by Assemblymember Eduardo Garcia to testify at a state hearing regarding the unique challenges of distance learning in Imperial County Wednesday, October 14.
Assembly Committees on Communications and Conveyance, and Education hosted a joint informational hearing exploring the new reality of distance learning and the issue of internet access for California students. Educators, superintendents, and assemblymembers joined from throughout the State.
Assemblymember Garcia stressed the struggles with connectivity and speed in Riverside and Imperial counties, saying students in rural areas suffered greatly.
Dr. Finnell offered some background information for Imperial County, explaining the County’s pre-COVID efforts to supply some type of internet access to students in the unincorporated areas of the community. He said a fiber infrastructure was built before the County began pursuing a wireless infrastructure in 2017 — locally known as the BorderLink Initiative.
BorderLink is an extension of the school network into students’ homes. The schools can still provide content filtering and other services as if the student were sitting in the classroom.
According to Finnell, BorderLink provides wireless internet access to more than 3,700 students, which is only 10 percent of the students in Imperial County.
“It’s important to recognize, these are the 10 percent of our students who had limited or no options prior to BorderLink,” he said.
He explained how local students and families have benefitted from the internet access, recalling a single mother of two who is currently attending Imperial Valley College to pursue a career in medicine. She was staying at the campus for several hours, often late into the night finishing her schoolwork with the school’s Wi-Fi because she had no connectivity at home. Finnell said this was stressful for the mom as she was missing out on precious family time and severely impacting her family as someone had to be home with her children.
With BorderLink and the access to internet at her home, she could focus on her schoolwork in a more comfortable and less stressful environment. She is on track to receive her nursing degree by December, according to Finnell.
Finnell said the County’s goal is to have every Imperial County student with BorderLink access by the end of this year.
Several individuals provided testimony regarding different districts’ efforts to purchase and distribute devices — including laptops and hotspots — to their students. However, limited internet access was still an issue across the board.
Some individuals explained their districts were hot and cold regarding internet access, where some students in the “colder” regions of the district struggled with their internet connectivity or did not have access at all. Others spoke of regions without any access to internet.
Through struggles, districts created innovative methods in efforts to bridge the gap and end the digital divide, including some districts becoming their own internet service providers (ISPs) after the inability to receive service through traditional ISPs. Some districts have installed hotspots on streetlamp posts for free broadband access to students.
Assemblymember Garcia has worked legislatively to bridge the digital divide. In 2017, he passed AB 1665, the Internet for All Now Act, which made improvements and extended $300 million into the California Advanced Services Fund (CASF) for broadband infrastructure projects. Garcia currently serves as a member of the California Department of Education’s Closing the Digital Divide Task Force, established to meet the distance learning and internet connectivity disparities heightened by the pandemic.