In a matter of months, the public health crisis resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic has upended our lives and our world in ways previously thought unimaginable. Such unprecedented circumstances have individuals and organizations both large and small quickly adapting to a “new normal” that involves remote working, distance learning, telemedicine, and virtual connection in order to minimize health risks while keeping safety paramount.
This ever-increasing reliance on technology has magnified the digital divide present in San Antonio, exposing pre-existing social inequalities that prevent the most vulnerable populations from accessing and participating in today’s digital economy. In a time when those with the resources and knowledge to navigate an online world find themselves struggling to meet challenges resulting from the virus, those lacking access to devices and the skills needed to leverage technology are now placed at an even greater disadvantage.
Of the 25 most populous metro areas in the United States, San Antonio has the highest percentage of people living in poverty. For people living in poverty, equitable opportunities for digital inclusion and economic advancement are limited. Without devices, access to the internet, and training to use digital tools, people are unable to fully participate as active and engaged members within our community. Families with low socioeconomic statuses are most at risk; particularly students who, without a computer at home or broadband connectivity, are denied equal access to information and the resources critical for success both in and out of the classroom.
And contrary to popular belief, today’s smartphone does not constitute an adequate substitution for a computer device. The limitations of a smaller screen present inherent challenges when it comes to successfully participating in distance learning activities.
While 87 percent of San Antonio households with children have access to a desktop or laptop at home, 59 percent are now sharing a device. Given a world where, at least in the foreseeable future, both school and work activity requires full-time connecting, learning and productivity at home becomes negatively impacted when there are fewer devices to meet demand. Such gaps disproportionately affect those of lower-income; thus, affecting the success of both generations now and those to come. Innovative solutions are needed to place quality, affordable devices in the hands of those who will benefit the most.
Goodwill San Antonio’s Electronics Recycling and Technology Access Program works to help bridge the digital divide by refurbishing donated computers and electronic devices for reuse in the community, empowering the community to use technology to apply for jobs, educate children, and manage health care. Given the current COVID-19 environment, the demand for laptops is especially critical.
With a digital divide extending beyond the borders of our major metropolitan area, collaborative partnerships with other nonprofit partners such as Restore Education, Libraries Without Borders, and the San Antonio Housing Authority, help expand distribution efforts to a larger geographical footprint.
Libraries Without Borders shifted their focus to rapid response efforts by launching ConnectED, a program centered around providing essential technology to individuals disconnected during the pandemic through the NXT Level Opportunity Youth program housed at the Frank Garrett Community Center on the West Side.
Using Goodwill San Antonio for IT asset disposition and refurbishment services, the San Antonio Housing Authority distributed 105 desktop devices previously used by SAHA employees to students across four SAHA properties. The San Antonio Chamber also recently donated more than one hundred previously used devices to Goodwill for refurbishment and donation. Each donated device, whether a laptop, tablet, or desktop computer, becomes an important lifeline to student achievement, job attainment, and skill development.
To meet the growing need for equipment, Goodwill is asking business and community partners to join partners such as the San Antonio Housing Authority and the San Antonio Chamber of Commerce to donate gently used devices. Helping community-minded companies dispose of IT assets in secure and sustainable ways, computer donations can be coordinated with the Goodwill Electronics Recycling Team at Computers@goodwillsa.org.
Today’s pandemic will not last indefinitely. Yet, with a pre-existing digital divide now exacerbated by changes resulting from the virus, the effects of present digital inequities will extend into the years ahead. Advancements toward bridging the gap must be made in order for all within our community to have equal opportunity for economic prosperity. This is a necessity now more than ever given a changed and competitive job market requiring higher technical skills. A true and successful recovery acknowledges the need to bridge the digital divide, and that work starts by ensuring all have access to a device.
The issue of poverty in our community is a complex, interwoven set of challenges of which digital inclusion is just one component. Addressing the digital divide leads to economic growth, wage increases, and greater access to education and medical opportunities. We cannot be stagnant nor complacent in letting our neighbors suffer from digital inequity. To strengthen our city, we must commit to provide the resources and tools that safeguard health, education, and employment opportunities. Post-pandemic growth starts by connecting the community to technology today.