In Washington State and around the country, the coronavirus pandemic has shown us just how crucial internet access is to everyday life. We’ve relied on the internet to attend school and work and to stay connected with friends and family. It’s difficult to imagine navigating this devastating pandemic without these modern tech advancements.
Unfortunately, not everyone was able to stay connected during this challenging year. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, more than 700,000 Washingtonians do not have an internet connection in their homes due to obstacles like a lack of affordable broadband options, and an additional 500,000 residents must rely on cell phone data plans. In King County, nearly one in four adults face internet access barriers such as the high cost of internet service plans or connected devices.
Every day, Lynda Greene and her fellow staffers at the SouthEast Seattle Senior Center field about 30–45 phone calls from community elders trying to schedule an appointment to get vaccinated against the novel coronavirus.
Most of these callers are crying. Most of them are Black.
Since the pandemic’s onset, Washington families have experienced a rolling crisis in jobs, hunger, health, and education. The prospect of eviction hangs over far too many. Food insecurity has skyrocketed. Child care facilities have closed, many of them permanently. And a rocky transition to remote learning is now impeding students’ educational progress. The acute stress on children and families may harm kids’ health, their education, and their ability to earn a living.
Nine months into the coronavirus pandemic, Seattle students and their families are still confronting a disproportionately large divide in who can and cannot access technology and online learning, though the City and Seattle Public Schools (SPS) are launching an array of initiatives that could close the gap. According to the May 2020 Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI) Survey, “at least 8,800 students still need adequate, reliable internet.” A July report published by sea.citi — a network of regional tech and innovation companies working to promote civic engagement and build relationships between community, government, and innovation workers — shows stark inequities among students without access. The most glaring inequity in the report is that almost half of all Black residents in Washington have a barrier to accessing reliable internet. Economic barriers are cited as the most prevalent in households without the internet, making Black students in the state five times more likely to not have access.
On July 20, the City of Seattle Office of Economic Development (OED) launched the Digital Bridge pilot program, an initiative that connects low-income job seekers with refurbished laptops and broadband internet access. Digital Bridge is sponsored by a public and private partnership with Comcast, Seattle Jobs Initiative (SJI), Seattle Information Technology Department (Seattle IT), Technology and Social Change Group at the University of Washington Information School, and InterConnection. The program was created in response to job losses caused by COVID-19, which particularly impacted POC, immigrants, refugees, and underhoused people. So far, individuals enrolled in workforce development programs through SJI have been provided laptops and internet connection to apply for jobs and complete training programs, which have moved online due to COVID-19.