Like many of you, near the end of Spring Break, I received the first of many emails from the school district regarding its decision to remain closed for an additional week in an effort to slow the spread of COVID-19. Within a matter of days, the precautionary closure turned into a statewide mandate for all schools to remain closed until mid-April then, ultimately, for the rest of the school year. My email inbox was flooded with updates from the district. There was an email letting us know we would receive worksheets in the mail, one with links to free distance-based learning apps and websites to use at home as parents became teachers. There were emails confirming we had received the worksheets, another with instructions for picking up school-issued electronic devices and free lunches for all students in the district. So many emails. But still, I thought, “This is impressive.”
Not long after picking up my daughter’s iPad, I received a text: “Hey. Trying to get a weekly WIFI pass for school. Can you send $20?” It was my brother concerned about my niece’s schoolwork. He, like many others, had been laid off from his job because of the pandemic. Others, who have become heroes and heroines among us—essential workers we’ve come to call them, like supermarket personnel—are teaching from home while also having to work arduous shifts. My brother’s text stopped me. Our failure to acknowledge and address the digital divide—one that existed in my own family—isn’t only about access but how and when we’re able to access. In the case of Black girls (and others) across the country, access determines the difference between an academic achievement gap and gulf.
With the sudden closure of both schools and public libraries, many people in rural and economically vulnerable communities no longer have reliable access to high-speed internet. In summertime, we rely on summer enrichment programs, often free, to mitigate the effects of “summer brain drain,” but what do you do when you can’t leave your home? If you don’t have supplemental academic materials? The library isn’t open? The intellectual or emotional capacity to keep your child engaged?
Despite many cities and states being open for business again, social distancing is still the new normal. Therefore, we rely more heavily on the internet for basic healthcare services, remote working/learning, shopping/delivery of food and household items, even virtual happy hours and wakes for funerals; it is evident that free or affordable access to broadband is, indeed, a fundamental human right.
There’s so much checking in. As our office gathers every day, Monday through Thursday, for a virtual staff meeting; my best friend of 20 years and I check in every morning on an app; and my daughter checks in with her grandparents—“Mama made me read another book today!”—and does mini-concerts with her favorite cousin on FaceTime, not only is staying connected essential for the fundamentals and mundanities of life but also to help ease the anxiety and uncertainties of forced sequester.
I was able to help one person, my brother. The Lighthouse has stepped in to help several individual college students pay for internet service on a temporary basis. But that isn’t enough. The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted inequities we rarely consider, at least for me it has. And while we work to find ways to chip away at the inequities that divide us, I’m reminded again just how important it is to #StayConnected.