Opinion: Responding to COVID-19, LBCC replaces pencils and paper with laptops and Wi-Fi, but digital divide is a concern

People Post is a space for opinion pieces, letters to the editor and guest submissions from members of the Long Beach community. The following is an op-ed submitted by Lou Anne Bynum, interim superintendent-president at Long Beach City Collegeand does not necessarily reflect the views of the Long Beach Post.

Long Beach City College’s action to respond to COVID-19 only took a few days, but the effects of this pandemic might be felt by some of our students for a lifetime.

On March 11, 2020, Long Beach City College made the decision to move most of its face-to-face classes to remote instruction in response to COVID-19. Within four days, more than 2,012 course sections were moved online. Within two weeks, nearly 1,200 faculty members were trained to teach their courses online. Student Support and Academic Services went entirely online. LBCC increased staff at the student help desk to assist with technology questions. A website was developed within hours to provide students with several links and guides to help them navigate through Zoom, Canvas and the Viking Portal.

But what happens when a faculty member enters their virtual classroom and large portions of students are missing?

With all of the thoughtful planning from LBCC’s leadership, the execution of multi-tiered plans, and the monumental efforts from faculty and staff, the COVID-19 pandemic revealed the massive digital divide that exists within our campus community, and within the majority of our educational system.

Forty percent of LBCC students receive financial aid. We knew before COVID-19 hit that there is a portion of our student population that does not have computers and Wi-Fi at home. Some of our students do not even have a smartphone.

A few days after LBCC announced that classes would switch to remote instruction, one student was near tears when a classmate approached him. This student had just lost his job and lived on his financial aid. He didn’t have a computer and home internet service was expensive. He depended solely on LBCC’s computer labs to complete his class assignments. This was supposed to be his last semester before he transferred to CSU Dominguez Hills.

At the beginning of the crisis, we attempted to keep our computer labs open. We started to research public Wi-Fi hot spots for our students to use. But these options were off the table as the crisis evolved and LBCC—like many other public institutions—closed the campus to the public.

We’re grateful for corporations that are offering free Wi-Fi.  We have partnered with the nonprofit organization Human I-T, which has been assisting low-income students with their technology needs. LBCC recently implemented our own computer loan program, and distributed approximately 250 Chromebooks to our students.

Unfortunately, 250 Chromebooks is not enough. We are trying to identify and assist those students who have not checked into their classes remotely. We are unsure of the exact reason for their absence, but it is likely there are students who feel they are not equipped to receive instruction online.

We just announced that our entire summer session (including the second five-week session) will also be taught remotely. We are hoping to add some face-to-face classes later, but the majority of these classes will be online. This is very tough news for those students who thought they could drop their spring classes and hopefully be back on campus during the summer to make up for lost time. This might lead to them falling further behind, and could result in our disadvantaged students being discouraged from pursuing an education altogether. This thought is devastating to Long Beach City College and would keep any educator up at night.

If we want to help those who are doing the right thing to make a better life for themselves and their families by earning an education, then we need to equip them so they are on equal footing in the 21st century. A computer and access to the internet are replacing the pencil and paper as the basic tools for education. LBCC managed to purchase some Chromebooks, but there are probably hundreds of other students who did not hear about our computer loan program before we distributed them.

I know our generous community members will read this and will ask how they can help. Here are some ways:

  • Connect us with funders who are looking to help out students now. I recently spoke with a community member who had a foundation connection who was interested in helping out our most vulnerable students. Hopefully this will lead to additional Chromebooks for LBCC. But additional resources are needed now.
  • Help by making a donation to LBCC’s emergency fund established by the Long Beach City College Foundation by visiting www.LBCC.edu/pod/makeagift.

At this time, LBCC does not need donations of used laptops. It is time consuming for our IT team to refurbish used equipment and they are the essential personnel right now who are keeping our servers online and answering technology questions from our campus community. Please consider making a donation to our emergency student fund instead.

There are situations that will be out of our control, such as natural disasters or earthquakes that we experience on the West Coast. Our response to the COVID-19 is an incredible precursor to how we might be teaching and operating if we have to close down our campus due to unforeseen circumstances in the future.

LBCC realizes that we are only one of many districts facing this issue and that this is something the entire country needs to resolve. We must find a more permanent solution to address the digital divide. If this is the preview of how we will be learning in the future, then the gap between the haves and the have-nots will continue to grow wider. 

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