There are many ways that the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted lives across the globe. Working from home, social distancing, and wearing masks are the ‘new normal.’ The pandemic has highlighted disparities and inequalities in access to healthcare, resources, technology, and more. Attending school virtually or working from home successfully requires internet connectivity that not all have sufficient access to. In California, for example, over 1.5 million students in grades K-12 (or 25%) lack adequate access to the internet, and 60% (or 924,258) of these students are Black, Latinx, or Native American. The digital divide refers to this uneven distribution in the access to information and communications technology.
I recently spoke with Jalen Wise, SMASH Rising scholar-intern and student at the University of Nevada, to highlight one of the many perspectives on the digital divide:
One of the biggest impacts the pandemic has had on my life has been the need to juggle broadband internet usage with my family. My name is Jalen Wise, and I’m a Sophomore studying Anthropology and Linguistics at the University of Nevada. I’d love to share my experience with others.
SUMMER 2019 VS. SUMMER 2020
In both 2019 and 2020, I participated as a SMASH Rising Scholar Intern. Prior to that, I spent three years in a STEM-intensive residential college preparation program through the SMASH Academy.
Instead of working from an office during my 2020 SMASH Rising Internship, I was working remotely while living back home with my family, in Sacramento. We were fortunate to have broadband internet in our home, but suddenly the pandemic thrust us into a complicated situation. While primarily my sister and I had relied on our home WIFI during the previous summer, now overnight there were five individuals relying heavily on our broadband connection. My Mom started working remotely during the pandemic, transforming one of our rooms into a home office. My Dad, my sister, my brother, and I all needed to use the WIFI for different activities, schooling, entertainment, and more. For a period of time this summer, my grandmother stayed with us at which point we had 6 people trying to connect to the WIFI.
This was definitely a new situation for us, and everyone needing internet access at the same time resulted in some discord. Our connection was slow and unreliable. We kept upgrading to new download speeds to try to keep up with our family’s needs, but still we experienced connectivity issues. Finally, at a certain point we realized we had to compromise. We couldn’t all be online at the same time. It was too chaotic, too unreliable.
Our solution to navigating competing needs was to create a family schedule, to increase transparency and help set expectations. Mapping out the schedule helped us to understand the different priorities across the entire family. We were better able to compromise once we had the schedule in place. The SMASH team also provided mobile hotspots for interns. I received mine in June, which was helpful, since the remote internship program had just launched a week prior. Although even with this additional resource, we still encountered issues navigating this delicate situation.
Juggling our family schedule was tough, but clearly it was important to all. Every morning I covered my internship briefings at 8:00am, using either my HP ChromeBook or my cell phone. To reduce my bandwidth usage, I’d turn off my volume or mute myself. Around 9:00am, everyone in our home was typically online for a bit. This was the trickiest part of the day. Sometimes I’d take video calls using my mobile data on my cell phone versus using the WIFI, because there was no other option. Soon after my brother would be outdoors and my sister involved in other activities. By 12:00pm, my sister was back online for homeschooling. And at 1:00pm, my brother would typically be online. Thankfully, around that time I would typically be heading offline to get started on other internship deliverables.
In an effort to help my family members get their tasks done online, I had to adapt. I quickly realized that Zoom video calls take up a lot of bandwidth, and found a “solution” in disabling video and volume to help reduce the bandwidth consumed. This meant that I wasn’t able to participate as fully in my video calls as I would have liked, unfortunately. But it was all part of adapting and being flexible to manage the competing needs of our family.
What we did this summer definitely required a lot of effort, patience, and perseverance. Through it all, we stayed focused on doing the best that we could, trying to “make it work” for the entire family. And now that I’m headed back to Nevada for the fall semester, perhaps it will be a tiny bit easier for my family to navigate with one less person reliant on the home WIFI. To anyone navigating challenges with broadband connectivity themselves or with friends/family/colleagues navigating this challenge, be patient with yourself and with others. Empathy is so important during this time. Reach out when you need help. And provide help to others when you are able to do so.
Technology is critical to participation in an increasingly digital society. And though California is the tech capital of the world, many Black and Latinx students lack sufficient access to information and communications technology. The challenges that Jalen experienced are not unique, and we risk widening the digital divide if we don’t take action. Further impacted, are those individuals with no connectivity at all. The California Department of Education has estimated that over 700,000 laptops and over 300,000 Wi-Fi hotspots are still needed to ensure all students are connected.
This moment is truly a time to innovate. A time to challenge ourselves and our organizations to solve systemic inequities and create solutions that will persist far beyond the global pandemic.
For more information, and to help narrow the digital divide, check out these 3 resources. Share them with your friends and family to continue the discussion on the digital divide. Knowledge is powerful, and together we can make a difference far beyond COVID-19: