SALINAS, Calif. -- As millions of students are heading back to school virtually from the comfort of their own homes, two young girls in California relied on a Taco Bell's free WiFi to access their coursework from the restaurant's parking lot, according to a county official.
The reality was captured in a single photo that has made its rounds on social media, shining a light on the digital divide that has long existed in the United States.
In the photo, two girls can be seen sitting on the sidewalk of a Taco Bell with computers in their lap and a pencil and paper on the pavement in front of them. Two Taco Bell employees can be seen in front of them, with one crouching down to meet them at eye level.
Approximately 15 to 16 million K-12 public school students in the US live in homes with inadequate internet connection, or have devices that aren't equipped for distance learning, according to study from Common Sense Media and the Boston Consulting Group published in June 2020.
Monterey County Supervisor Luis Alejo tweeted the photo on Wednesday after seeing it on Instagram saying, "we must do better & solve this digital divide once & for all for all California students."
"California is the technology capital of the world, this is an embarrassment," he told CNN. "Salinas Valley is 45 minutes from Silicon Valley and here we have such a huge divide that's gone on for years but now it's only amplified because of this pandemic."
Alejo said he does not know who the students are in the photo and that he couldn't confirm what led them to go to Taco Bell but said the photo speaks to the bigger picture of the reality many students and families are faced with.
"We know that there is thousands of other kids in a similar situation. In Salinas, there's a lot of homes and a lot parents who don't even know how to use computers or how hotspots work."
Richard Gebin, public relations officer for the Salinas City Elementary School District (SCESD) told CNN that the Salinas City Elementary School District immediately identified the students after seeing the photo circulate.
"The digital divide is very real and delays in receiving needed technology are a statewide concern," Amy Ish, president of the Salinas City Elementary School District, said in a statement. "We are grateful the State is making technology a priority and look forward to receiving these hotspots in our District."
For privacy and security concerns, the district would not identify the students or their parents.
The district gave the family a hotspot so the students could access classroom instructions from their home, according to Gebin. The district is in full distance learning mode and said they've distributed 8,245 Chromebooks, 1,500 hotspots and are awaiting 2,500 additional hotspots.
"Technology is so critical and we cannot view it as a luxury, it's a necessity of life, it should be seen as a utility like water, electricity and gas," Alejo said.
In a statement, a spokesperson for Taco Bell Corp. told CNN that "the photo of two young girls outside of a Salinas, CA Taco Bell is a tough reminder of basic inequalities facing our communities."
"We and our franchisees have always been passionate about supporting youth education, and the owner of this restaurant is looking into additional ways to support these students and the broader community," Taco Bell said in an email statement.
Though the digital divide is a problem throughout the entire country, in California, 25% (1,529,000) of the state's K-12 student population don't have the adequate connection and 17% (1,063,000) don't have the adequate devices for distance learning, according to research from the Common Sense Media and the Boston Consulting Group.
California is second to Texas in the states with the highest number of students without adequate access.