Mark Quattrocchi crossed the front curb of Two Rock Elementary School on Thursday in a fabric mask and rubber gloves, carrying a sealed brown box as he walked toward a school administrator in a similar set of protective gear.
“I feel like we’re in a dark alley or something,” he said as he handed the plain-looking package to Betha MacClain, the principal and superintendent of the rural school district west of Petaluma.
The box contained not contraband but 26 mobile hot spots for Two Rock students who haven’t had reliable internet or any online access whatsoever since mid-March when Sonoma County’s 40 public school districts were forced to close because of the coronavirus pandemic and switch to at-home instruction for 70,000 students.
Since then, the distance learning has highlighted the chronic shortage of internet access in remote and low-income communities who need it for the rest of the school year.
Many towns, like Two Rock, have been ignored by telecommunication giants that local elected officials say haven’t invested in broadband in rural areas because they offer minimal profits. MacClain has devoted much of the past month to try to help local families overcome the so-called digital divide, the disparate technological realities between cities and their pastoral neighbors still lacking an internet connection.
After reading an April 13 article in The Press Democrat about the plight of the county’s rural and poor school districts struggling to get every student online, Quattrocchi, the founder of Quattrocchi Kwok Architects, said he was compelled to help bridge the divide. His Santa Rosa company spent over $30,000 on 330 reams of paper and 60 online hot spots over the last few weeks for schools in Sonoma and Lake counties, using money the design firm typically donates annually around the holidays to community groups.
“When the need comes, people rise to the occasion,” Quattrocchi said. “Look at what happened during the fires. The community support, financial, emotional — this community has always been about giving and supporting. I don’t think I’m doing anything that hasn’t been done before.”
The hot spots Quattrocchi donated were made by a company called Skyroam, whose devices can convert the strongest cellphone signal in the area to high-speed internet, regardless of which carrier provides it.
Every hotspot was preloaded with three-month service plans, costing about $320 each, Quattrocchi said.
Finding the right device or the specific online provider that services a student’s home had been the biggest challenge for Two Rock, MacClain said. For weeks she had been exasperated by it. Getting different internet plans from different companies was too difficult for a school of 168 students from kindergarten through sixth grade.
According to a March survey by the Sonoma County Office of Education, over 40 Two Rock families did not have access to the internet.
MacClain said she was floored when a private company contacted her and was able to find an efficient digital solution in a matter of hours. Like her, the Sonoma County Office of Education and county Supervisor David Rabbitt, who represents the south county, had been unsuccessful after several weeks of trying.
“That’s a classic school struggle,” MacClain said Thursday with a sense of relief after the donation from the architectural design firm. “I’m so grateful, but it shouldn’t be so difficult.”
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