Disconnected In Isolation: How The Coronavirus Pandemic Shed Light On The Digital Divide

By Anna Patrick The Seattle Times

WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) As people are told to shelter in place, there has been an increased need for technology in the home. But for many low-income families, the systems are not in place to work, learn, and connect.


When Daria Smith moved to South Seattle, she wasn't planning to get the internet any time soon. It's expensive, and she had other, more pressing bills to pay.

But her priorities shifted after the Auburn School District sent her son and daughter, ages 14 and 13, home in the middle of March because of the coronavirus pandemic.

She tried to sign up for a free or reduced-cost internet plan through CenturyLink, a special she thought her family qualified for. Smith waited for hours on hold to ask about their deals, but never received a clear answer. After more than a month without internet and worried her kids would fall behind in school, she caved and signed up for a $70 a month plan in early April.

"I would have waited," Smith said. "I was trying to bring down bills and stuff."

She signed up for the service after she received her first paycheck from Amazon. To support her family, she has become a front-line worker, grocery shopping for other people at the Whole Foods in North Seattle's Roosevelt neighborhood. On a 10-hour shift, she gets two 10-minute breaks to check in with her kids via text: "Did you log on to school today?"

As people are encouraged to shelter in place, it has placed a greater reliance on technology in the home. But working, learning and connecting with friends remotely requires households to meet a digital threshold. For many low-income families, seniors and immigrants, such connection is a luxury that comes at too high a cost.

School and library closures in mid-March eliminated access to free computers and the internet many people relied on, bringing to light digital inequities that have always existed. The pandemic has spurred organizations, major tech companies and school districts to contribute some computers and tech support to people in need. Some transit systems are even using buses to create drive-in, public Wi-Fi hotspots.

But closing the long-held digital gap isn't as simple as handing out computers: It requires reliable internet, adequate devices and digital literacy skills in order to take advantage of the technology, researchers say.

And to do that now, during a global pandemic, would be an incredibly large feat.

"It seems simple at first," said Laura Robinson, an associate professor at Santa Clara University whose research examines digital inequities. "Let's just get everybody what they need and let's just go. But it's horrifically complicated."

Even in the greater Seattle region, one of the country's leading technology hubs, a significant digital divide persists, particularly for low-income families. Households earning $25,000 or lower in Seattle have the lowest internet access rates, with 21% of households reporting a lack of internet access, according to a 2018 technology study by the city.

A breakdown of internet access in Seattle

For Seattle, income level is the greatest determining factor when it comes to internet in the home.

The divide is even more pronounced across the state: In Washington, 15% of households lacked internet subscriptions, according to U.S. Census data from 2013-2017, the most recent available. But for families in Washington earning $20,000 or less a year, the percentage of those without access was almost 40%.

"This isn't about cat videos on YouTube anymore," said Lloyd Levine, senior policy fellow at the University of California-Riverside, who studies the digital divide. "The internet is an essential, integral part of civic life in America in 2020. People who don't have access to the internet at home suffer demonstrable educational and economic harms."

Meanwhile, 24,041 cases of COVID-19 have been reported in Washington, according to a Monday update from the Washington State Department of Health, and 1,161 people have died from the disease. The state's newest numbers represent an additional two deaths and 312 cases compared to the day before.

Adapting to a pandemic

After the coronavirus pandemic shut down the Seattle Public Library classroom used by Asian Counseling and Referral Service, the organization knew it had to get computers into students' homes if there was any hope of continuing their English as a Second Language classes.

Volunteers got to work, dropping off loaner computers and even helping to sign up students through Seattle Public Library for free Wi-Fi hotspots. But the new equipment brought a host of accompanying hurdles for families, like connecting to the internet.

"For most of them, this is the first time getting the internet," said Getu Hunde, program coordinator at ACRS.

Hunde helped one student over an hourlong WhatsApp video call get connected to Wi-Fi and then on Zoom, so she could attend classes. Another case manager drove to students' homes and stood on their porches to talk them through connecting to the internet from a safe distance.

"Even speaking the same language, it's still a problem," Hunde said.

English as a second language speakers are more likely to lack internet than native English speakers, according to city data. Living without computers or the internet is a reality for many Beacon Hill International Elementary School students from immigrant families.

When the school closed due to the novel coronavirus, first-grade teacher Nisha Daniel found about half of her 51 students lacked the resources they needed to do school work remotely.

Their families are "struggling to put food on the table and keep a roof over their heads; the internet and a computer is the last thing on the list," she said.

As the economic ramifications from the pandemic worsen, more families could be out of work and with less expendable income to pay for devices or cover internet costs. Washington's unemployment rate rose from 5.1% in March to 15.4% in April, according to Washington's Employment Security Department.

Who has internet access? Across Washington, large disparities in broadband access still exist. Using laptops provided by Amazon and secondhand computer donations, Daniel was able to find computers for her students. The PTAs are working with internet companies and lobbying landlords to get the students Wi-Fi.

In the meantime, Daniel calls her students without internet access through their parents' phones to ensure they received the weekly lesson plan, and helps them practice their English pronunciation by reading stories over WhatsApp video chat.

"It's so unfair, because the kids who need intervention and help are the ones who don't have the internet," Daniel said.

Locally, Amazon donated 8,200 Chromebook laptops to elementary-age Seattle Public School students throughout April and early May. As of May 27, an additional 5,313 devices and 367 Wi-Fi hotspots have been distributed to SPS students, according to SPS spokesperson Tim Robinson.

In May, a free, tech-support phone line was created to support SPS families with their new devices. So far, the call center has answered 309 tickets and is being staffed by more than 100 volunteers, many of whom work in the tech industry, said Nick Merriam, whose organization sea.citi is overseeing the service.

Still, there remains a lot of ground to cover to ensure every Seattle Public Schools student has access to reliable internet and adequate devices in the home.

"For kids, let's just say they fall behind in math or in STEM," said Robinson, "this period where they are losing out on their education could be a stumbling block that has lifelong implications for their educational trajectories and life chances."

Outside the city Many of the private sector's efforts have focused on closing the urban divide, but there are still rural areas of Washington, including in King County, that lack access to reliable, high-speed internet.

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