Vista Mom Says Students Left Behind Without Internet Access

December 12, 2020
In The News

Students across California are learning from home as coronavirus cases rise again, but Rep. Raul Ruiz said there's one aspect about remote learning that he feels the federal government is overlooking: high-speed internet.

Students are getting marked absent across the nation if they miss parts of class due to their poor broadband or the lack of internet access.

Susi Torrico, a Vista mother of two boys who are virtual learning, explained that she tries to help with school work and resolve internet issues as much as possible but can't always be around since she works at an elementary school as a community liaison. Torrico is the person families come to for help — anything from food insecurities to technology issues. She said their woes resonate with her.

"Lots of empathy for families and a little more understanding for what they feel because I'm going through the same thing," she said.

Torrico, whose 14-year-old son has autism, added that virtual learning can lead to many frustrations. Sometimes their internet shuts off, or they may have bad reception, which sometimes leads to missing entire lessons.

"You know it's very difficult, very difficult with all of this," she said.

Torrico said she feels as if schools expect all homes to have high-speed internet.

"The school that I work at, it's a low-income school, and families are in shared housing," Torrico said. "And there are sometimes two or three families in an apartment, and so they're each in their own room with their whole family, and I just think about how they struggle. If I struggle at home, I can only imagine how other families are struggling."

Now she's commending a Southern California representative for his effort to close the digital divide. Congressman Raul Ruiz, D-Coachella, is calling on the FCC to expand the E-rate program to provide broadband internet access to all students outside the classroom. The program currently helps schools and libraries obtain internet access.

"They're being asked to learn, study, compete from home when their internet breaks or is too slow, or they simply don't have it," Ruiz said. "So we're asking the FCC to change the criteria of eligibility of the E-rate funds to consider the at-home access as part of a classroom."

Torrico explained that with an FCC E-rate program expansion, schools might be able to purchase portable Wi-Fi devices or hire more information technology, or IT, personnel to help students. Ruiz joined a handful of other lawmakers to write a letter to the FCC about expanding the E-rate program and has yet to hear back.

The FCC has a different plan called Lifeline, which allows low-income families to purchase telephones or broadband internet at a discounted rate. But Ruiz said that plan wasn't created specifically for remote learning. He hopes that with the expansion of the E-rate program, the cost of any new equipment amid the pandemic will fall on the FCC and the schools to make those purchases for families — at least temporarily.

The latest HEROES Act included language to authorize the FCC to provide funding to school districts to assist with internet access. Currently, Congress and the White House are still going over negotiations for a new COVID-19 relief plan.