CETF - On a mission to close the Digital Divide - Page 19

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Conquering the Digital Divide Post-Pandemic

As California moves toward less restrictive COVID-19 safety guidelines , we will continue to struggle with the inequities laid bare by a global health crisis that appears to be slowly receding across our nation . One area of continued struggle is the Digital Divide , which exacerbated the impact of the pandemic for low-income populations , as the lack of access to technology made going to work , attending school , safely ordering food , accessing benefits and signing up for vaccinations challenging if not impossible .
The pandemic has demonstrated how unprepared many of our systems were to respond to the basic needs of millions of Californians . It has illuminated and exacerbated the consequences of the Digital Divide — the gap between those who do and do not have opportunities to access information and communication technologies , including reliable access to the internet .
A recent Public Policy Institute of California report found that “ although most demographic groups have seen significant increases in broadband subscriptions at home in recent years , racial / ethnic gaps persist . Seventy-nine percent of Latino households and 81 % of African American households had broadband subscriptions in 2019 , compared to the statewide average of 84 %. Broadband subscription rates are lower among adults 65 and older ( 82 %), as well as among rural ( 73 %), low-income ( 76 %), and less-educated ( 80 %) households .” Those Californians who are left behind are unable to access basic services and information , as well as job opportunities , student supports and essential services such as telehealth .
During the pandemic , the lack of broadband access and related technology may have widened the health gap , as low-income families and communities struggled to access or were cut off from the physical , spiritual and mental health care that was largely delivered online . As we move toward reopening , we must make investments that close the divide and address the systemic reasons for higher rates of poverty in communities of color , the widening wealth gap and systemic racism that would allow the status quo to continue .
What do we risk by not doing so ? We saw it in our education system this past year , as students , parents , teachers and administrators struggled to create equitable learning plans . In September 2020 , 59 % of lower-income parents said they expected that their students would face some kind of connection challenge that would impact their learning . Education is one of the strongest predictors of health outcomes and the Digital Divide stands to widen the achievement gaps influenced by long-standing barriers and a system unprepared to support homeless students .
We also saw this in health care , as telehealth has been an important tool to keep patients and medical practitioners safe but has made us more reliant on high-speed internet and technology necessary for phone and video visits . As of April 2021 , 76 % of people who earn $ 30,000 or less have a video-enabled device like a smartphone , compared to 96 % of those who make $ 75,000 or more each year . At the same time , telehealth visits rose nearly 140 times during the pandemic and many experts predict some policies and practices encouraging remote visits will become permanent .
This issue is being addressed at national , state and local government levels , as well as at school districts and schools . This year , community partners of our San Joaquin Valley Health Fund added the Digital Divide as a priority in their annual Policy Platform , outlining advocacy opportunities to close the divide in the San Joaquin Valley . The California Emerging Technology Fund has played a leadership role in partnership with the California Public Utilities Commission , decision-makers , educational institutions and state and community agencies to narrow the divide . In addition to the state ’ s Closing the Digital Divide Task Force , State Superintendent Tony Thurmond announced $ 1 million for a CA Digital Divide Innovation Challenge , inviting proposals that would help close the Digital Divide . And the federal stimulus package has prioritized billions for broadband connectivity and infrastructure .
Several opportunities exist for real solutions and optimism , including increased funding to support infrastructure development , addressing language and other system-wide barriers , holding technology companies accountable for affordable services , prioritizing access , providing technology training and support to school staff and , most importantly , widespread engagement with those most impacted by the Digital Divide and partnership with trusted community organizations and leaders . California families should not have to choose between basic necessities and digital connection . The pandemic has shown that internet access is a basic necessity . These are just some of the many critical steps that are needed to Build Back Better and create a more equitable , inclusive , prosperous and connected California for all residents .
Chet P . Hewitt
President and CEO Sierra Health Foundation
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