Eliminating the Digital Divide More Urgent than Ever as Schools Reopen with Distance Learning

Eliminating the Digital Divide More Urgent than Ever as Schools Reopen with Distance Learning

Philanthropists Sara and Evan Williams Donate $10 Million to SF Unified Access Initiative

San Francisco (August 4, 2020) - Two weeks before the new school year gets underway with distance learning, Spark* SF Public Schools and the San Francisco Unified School District have received $10 million to help eliminate the digital divide for SF students in need. Long-time supporters of San Francisco’s public schools, Sara and Evan Williams have stepped up to narrow the gap in access to technology and support for students and families who are furthest from opportunity and most adversely impacted by the challenges posed by distance learning.

Rooted in their strong belief in education equity, Sara and Evan Williams are supporting the district’s SF Unified Access initiative and inviting others to join them, in providing thousands of students with access to a computer, the internet, and the technology support teachers, students and families need to access distance learning. 

“Taking a lead on this is important to us because we know inequity doesn’t just happen. We let it happen. Evan and I believe that change can only start when we provide equal access to education,” said Sara Williams. 

The Williams, through the Someland Foundation, have been a strategic partner with the San Francisco Unified School District since 2015. They first focused on food security and innovation via the Future Dining Experience, and design thinking curriculum with the Superintendent’s Innovation Awards. In March when SFUSD had to close school buildings due to COVID-19, the Williams gave $1.1 million to support the district’s efforts to alleviate food insecurity for students and families most severely impacted by the economic fallout.  

“We are extremely grateful to Sara and Evan for their vision and ongoing commitment to San Francisco public school students. With this generous gift, they are giving our students furthest from opportunity a chance to connect to each other and their teachers and to progress in their learning during this very difficult time,” said Superintendent Dr. Vincent Matthews. “Equitable access to technology is an essential part of eliminating the opportunity gap now and in the future.” 

To realize the potential of technology in providing deeper, more personalized learning experiences as outlined in the district’s Vision 2025 plan, SFUSD has been gradually working toward providing computer or WiFi enabled devices to students who need them along with the professional development necessary for teachers to utilize technology for learning. 

However, due to persistent structural underfunding from public resources, the district has had to move slowly and rely on private support to make the vision a reality. The SF Unified Access initiative includes technology training and support for teachers, students and families. 

“Technology access is as much a necessity for distance learning this fall as it is in the long term. It is critical to preparing students for full participation in the 21st century,” said Gentle Blythe, Deputy Superintendent for Strategic Partnerships and Communications and President of Spark* SF Public Schools. “Without access to a device and WiFi at home and at school, inequity only grows.” 

Fifty-five percent of the SFUSD student population lives at or below the poverty line. With a combination of millions in donations and public relief aid, SFUSD distributed 13,000 laptops and nearly 4,000 WiFi hotspots since schools closed in March. In the spring the duration of distance learning was even more unknown and massive budget cuts were looming so SFUSD focused on technology access for students in grades 3-12. 

Based on wellness checks with families and, in light of an expanded timeline for distance learning, SFUSD faces a $25 million shortfall if it is to realize its vision for technology access and infrastructure for all students who need it throughout the upcoming school year.

With the Williams’ gift, the district can now include students in grades PK-2 who need technology while also continuing to prioritize English Language Learners, students with disabilities, foster and homeless children as well as African American and Asian and Pacific Islander students in all grades; an estimated 60% of whom do not have access to a dedicated device and 68% of whom are in need of WiFi.

SFUSD will begin distributing devices and hotspots to elementary students who need them the week of August 10. The district notes that, depending on the demand and its ability to raise sufficient funding, it may take a few weeks before every child who needs one has access. 

The district was facing an ongoing structural deficit before the onset of school closures due to the pandemic and projects millions in new unfunded costs associated with continuing to provide a robust and consistent learning and instructional experience for students and teachers as distance and remote learning continue to be the reality for the foreseeable future. 

SF Unified Access seeks to raise $25 million to meet the immediate need and establish a permanent solution to tech inequity in San Francisco’s public schools. With calls for equity resounding in every part of the country, and the fall semester only two weeks away, this transformation is more urgent than ever. Spark* is seeking partnerships with Bay Area industry leaders and philanthropists to join in supporting this initiative. To learn more go to SF Unified Access or here to donate

ABOUT SFUSD

SFUSD is the seventh largest school district in California, educating over 55,000 students across 119 schools with the mission to ensure each and every student receives the quality instruction and equitable support required to thrive in the 21st century. 

ABOUT SPARK* SF PUBLIC SCHOOLS

Spark* SF Public Schools is a non-profit 501(c)(3) organization dedicated to building private partnerships in support of the San Francisco Unified School District’s mission by  leveraging philanthropic support to pilot new ventures, propel promising ideas, and scale proven practices across the district.

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