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Bethany Hall-Long: COVID-19 highlights need for technological equity


Lt. Gov. Bethany Hall-Long | PHOTO C/O THE STATE OF DELAWARE

COVID-19 moved schools, jobs, healthcare and many essential services online making access to broadband networks a lifeline for most Americans.

The pandemic has highlighted the fundamental need for universal connectivity – access to computers, affordable broadband, and digital literacy – as an essential tool to our social and economic recovery.

This is a very personal issue for me as an educator and an elected official. In Sussex County, where I grew up, about 7% of the residents still have no high-speed internet infrastructure.  Pockets elsewhere in the state have similar wireless internet access challenges.

This is unacceptable. We must act to accelerate the deployment of affordable, reliable, high-speed broadband connectivity for every Delaware community that doesn’t have it.

I’m proud of the progress that has been made with Governor John Carney’s investment in the Delaware Broadband Fund, which is wiring Kent and Sussex counties. And I support Congressional efforts to use federal stimulus funds to build broadband in rural communities that don’t have it – while learning the hard lessons from earlier federal buildout programs by ensuring funds are prioritized where the need is greatest.

The National Plan for Broadband written in 2010 was well-intended but fell short. New initiatives and stimulus packages must also cut outdated red tape to encourage all qualified providers to participate in the build-out; more competition will drive faster progress for those that need it most.

Many households have access to broadband but don’t subscribe, creating what is called an “adoption gap.” While 95% of Americans have broadband available in their communities, 22% do not subscribe from home. A recent federal survey found that 60% of the non-subscribers cite a lack of need or interest as their biggest reason for not signing up.

Lack of home computers is also a big factor:  one in four teens in families making under $30,000, along with 42% of African Americans and 43% of Hispanics, reportedly don’t have a desktop or laptop computer at home. Nearly one-in-five teens can’t always finish their homework because of this digital divide.

When COVID-19 compelled us to shutter our schools on March 13, we were not anywhere near prepared for many of these challenges. While local school districts and the Department of Education worked overtime to update online curricula and provide homework support to students and parents, many schools stopped grading and some students simply abandoned their schoolwork altogether. Huge numbers of grade-school students also lack sufficient digital skills.

Delaware isn’t alone – across America, reports suggest more than half of all students did not participate in online classes.

Before the pandemic, 18.3% of Delaware children – including 28% of those raised by single parents – were living in poverty. When life is a daily struggle, parents can’t be expected to become surrogate teachers in their children’s education, much less participate in an experiment in online learning without special support.

As we prepare to reopen schools this fall, likely with a mix of online and in-person instruction, we will need to step up and meet the urgent challenges, from teachers’ training to coaching families and ensuring low-income families are aware of the discounted or free options for getting connected during this crisis.  Far too many teachers – even veteran teachers who have spent years captivating classrooms of kids – argue that educators need to be far better trained for the massive cultural shift to distance education.

Universal connectivity and digital competence are increasingly important to health care, much of which is also moving online during the pandemic. I know this as a nurse and as someone who assisted with COVID-19 tests during this pandemic. Telehealth is a critical bridge, enabling patients to consult medical professionals by video conference without risking visits to potentially infected emergency rooms and doctors’ offices.

The Medical Society of Delaware foresees dramatic increases in telehealth, but many of its potential beneficiaries, including seniors, veterans and people with disabilities, need the digital literacy training, computers and broadband adoption to conduct video visits.

Having studied and taught public health policy, I am inspired by how Americans achieved goals that once seemed beyond our grasp. Universal public education, voting rights and rural electrification – to name only a few – went from visionary dreams to living realities.

Together, let us aspire to – and achieve – universal broadband deployment and adoption, home computer ownership and digital literacy for all Delawareans. Let’s get everyone online and engaged. As the “First State,’ Delaware can lead the way to an America where everyone is equipped to fully participate in the Digital Age.

Bethany Hall-Long serves as Delaware’s Lieutenant Governor and chairs Delaware’s Behavioral Health Consortium.  She holds a Ph.D. in public health and is a professor at the University of Delaware School of Nursing.

– Peter Osborne

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