The digital divide in low-income communities could widen with coronavirus pandemic

Stan Altman, President Science and Arts Engagement New York | 3/21/2020, 8:09 a.m.
While the decision to move to online education is a logical action to reduce the spread of the coronavirus, it ...
Computer/technology Image by F. Muhammad from Pixabay
Soundcloud

COVID-19 and the Digital Divide

With schools closed, large assemblies banned and many colleges, universities and schools implementing a strategy of online tutelage for all students for the remainder of the spring semester, the coronavirus has not only brought the lives of people and global systems to a grinding halt, it could potentially widen the digital divide in low-income communities such as Harlem and the South Bronx.

While the decision to move to online education is a logical action to reduce the spread of the coronavirus, it fails to consider the number of households and students who do not have access to the Internet or a personal computer necessary to access their online classes. The New York Times reports nearly a million households in NYC (28 percent) do not have access to the Internet, or if they do, it is at speeds slow by today’s standards. It is not surprising this lack of access is concentrated in low-income communities. The decision to move to online education without a plan for addressing this deficiency perpetuates the digital divide and again highlights the ways in which low-income communities are excluded from benefiting from the technology that is revolutionizing how we work, communicate, educate people and do business in the 21st century.

The Internet is referred to as the information highway, a reference to the 41,000-mile interstate highway system built by the Federal Government to eliminate unsafe roads, inefficient routes, traffic jams and all of the other things that got in the way of “speedy, safe transcontinental travel.” The 1956 law that authorized the construction of an elaborate expressway system declared it was “essential to the national interest.” As the Coronavirus illustrates, construction and access to the internet for ALL communities in the U.S. is essential to our national interest – to our economy, to the health and well-being of our population and to our ability to educate and prepare our children for careers in the tech economy.

The recent Center for an Urban Future’s report on the need for NYC to build a Tech Education and Training Infrastructure states:

"The fast-growing technology sector represents one of the best opportunities for New Yorkers from low-income backgrounds to springboard into the middle class. But too many New Yorkers from low-income communities lack the required early exposure, hands-on skills and educational credentials needed to compete for these jobs.

To create a tech sector that reflects the diversity of New York while greatly expanding access to economic opportunity, city leaders will need to set ambitious goals and commit to a bold and long-term agenda to expand and improve the tech skills-building ecosystem—starting with investments in the K–12 education system, where policymakers can have the greatest impact."

In a crisis such as we face with COVID-19, the digital divide underscores that we live in a “class privilege” society which puts lives at risk when one million New Yorkers cannot access the information they need or keep up with their education and to access all important health alerts.

The City University of New York, whose main campus sits in West Harlem, has the capacity to take on the challenge of reducing the digital divide given its mission, the demographics of its students and the many low-income communities it serves.

To increase the technological literacy of the residents of Harlem and the lack of preparation of Black and Latinx students for high-paying jobs in the tech sector, City College, in collaboration with Science and Arts Engagement New York, a not-for profit 501©3 corporation, are creating the Harlem Gallery of Science, an innovative cultural space that brings science and technology alive by creating interactive exhibitions based on popular everyday themes, such as basketball, music and contagion, through which the concepts of STEM are introduced. The Gallery’s project-based experiential learning experiences can help build essential skills, such as critical thinking, complex problem solving, teamwork and communication skills. These are the very skills executives say are critical to successful careers in the tech industries.

Programs like the Harlem Gallery of Science can help develop ecosystems to support STEM education and create career pathways into the tech sector of NYC, so when the next global crisis occurs, all our communities are prepared.