Opinion: For Homeless Residents, the Digital Divide is a Digital Chasm

Shennell McCloud | August 12, 2020 | Opinion, Education
We all need to do our part to bridge this critical gap, or COVID-19 will continue to further divide our communities between haves and have-nots
Shennell McCloud

It was a perfect irony. As I was interviewing Jacqueline Vargas — a Newark mother of two and a college student who is living in a shelter — about solving the digital divide, her internet connection kept dropping out.

The COVID-19 pandemic has disproportionately hurt society’s most vulnerable populations, and the impact on Newark’s displaced families exemplifies this challenge. The Newark Public School system has identified at least 160 students experiencing homelessness without access to wireless internet or a device to access it.

I recently spoke with Ms. Vargas, a resident of Newark’s Apostles’ House — an organization dedicated to providing housing and services to Newark’s displaced families — and Suzane Thomas, the organization’s director of Transitional Housing.

The Apostles’ House is an inspiration, providing women with a place where they and their children can live safely while they get back on their feet and start a new life. Ms. Vargas is a second-year college student living at Apostles’ House with her 13-year-old son and five-year-old daughter. All three share one Chromebook and take turns using it for remote learning and Jackie’s coursework.

The Apostles’ House regularly has between 15 and 22 families sharing their limited Wi-Fi network at once, so the Internet is spotty at best (during our interview, Jackie lost her connection twice). They’re desperate for additional hotspots, which will allow families to fully access remote learning. As Thomas put it, “our children can’t financially support themselves. Any little (donation), combined with other (donations), can become something great.”

We’ve launched an effort to get the Apostles’ House the hotspots they need, but caring citizens and local nonprofits will never be able to solve the digital divide in all New Jersey’s high-need communities — let alone the nation’s — without a strong commitment from all levels of government. Our most vulnerable residents need the government to step up on their behalf.

Make sure funding goes where needed

Thanks to Newark’s own State Sen. Teresa Ruiz’s tireless advocacy, Gov. Phil Murphy and the New Jersey Legislature have allocated $50 million to help school districts combat the digital divide. That’s a great start. Now, state and local leaders need to make sure that this funding reaches all residents in need. This means partnering not only with school districts but also with nonprofit organizations like the Apostles’ House to ensure that families like Jackie’s have both the devices and the high-speed internet they need to not fall permanently behind in their education.

At the federal level, Congress can ensure that low-income students get reliable access to the internet by funding an increase in the Federal Communication Commission’s Schools and Libraries Program (known more commonly as the E-rate). This program provides federal funding to make the internet more affordable for schools and libraries. A mobile hotspot currently costs a school about $25 per month per student, but with E-rate funds, that cost drops significantly. Increasing the E-rate should be included in the next round of federal relief spending.

New Jersey families are heading toward an unpredictable start to the school year. With COVID-19 cases surging across the country, parents I speak with are assuming that at least part of the next school year will be held remotely.

This means different things for different families. For families with the resources to do so, it means bringing in tutors and other supports to help make sure their kids don’t fall behind.

Families like Jackie’s share the same commitment to do right for their children. In her words: “I’m a mom. A mom is strong, she’s resilient, and she keeps pushing to maintain the best life she can for her children.”

But without support from the government, children in transitional housing will struggle to keep up. We all need to do our part to keep this from happening, or COVID-19 will continue to further divide our communities between haves and have-nots.