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October 28, 2020

Report: Pandemic underscores CT's digital divide

Photo | CT MIRROR Residents use computers at the UConn Library at the Hartford Public Library’s downtown branch before the pandemic.

First, the good news: Every public school student in Connecticut is expected in two weeks to have access to a laptop and high-speed internet at home, courtesy of $60 million in federal and philanthropic spending.

Now, the bad news: Thousands of seniors and families without school-age children likely remain adrift during the pandemic by a so-called digital divide, according to a new report from the Connecticut Conference of Municipalities and Barbara Dalio, a philanthropist who has focused on improving education for underserved populations in Connecticut.

Access to the internet was a problem before the pandemic – half of the families in the state were not connected to high-speed broadband, most of them Black and Hispanic residents and those from low-income families. But access has become increasingly important as the coronavirus continues to keep many people home.

Jobs have gone remote, doctors are embracing tele-medicine appointments, and public facilities — such as libraries and coffee shops where many relied on free internet access to search for jobs or enroll in unemployment or other public benefits — are scaling back their hours or closing. Schools, too, are moving more classes online as COVID-19 cases crop up.

On Tuesday, the CCM — the chief lobbying organization for city and town elected officials – and Dalio released a 40-page report and hosted a press conference to highlight the problem and call on the state and federal government to step up.

To date, the attention and government help has been primarily on closing the digital divide for students who were forced to learn online during the pandemic. But they aren’t the only ones who need internet access, according to the report.

“It’s not just about education, it’s really about everything. We hear about so many seniors that are totally disconnected because, you know, they cannot go out, they’re scared. And they’re completely isolated, which is also very bad for depression, and not able to access tele-medicine,” said Dalio, a billionaire and wife to hedge fund manager Ray Dalio.

This problem is too large for private philanthropy to solve, said Dalio, whose work in Connecticut has focused on improving education for underserved populations.

“The state and the federal [governments] have to step in and really tackle this problem,” she said.

While broadband internet is available almost everywhere in Connecticut, it is being used in only 52.6% of households in the state. In New Haven county, the divide is most prevalent: Only 45.5% of households are using broadband internet there, according to data from Microsoft.

The lack of universal access to the internet is also contributing to an economic crisis, said Joe DeLong, the executive director of CCM.

“Imagine, from a broader economic perspective, how much our economy is suffering by so many people not even able to participate in the economy because of this lack of connectivity,” he told reporters during a conference call. “It’s more than just an educational problem. As we try to prepare our state and our country to come out of this economic crisis – that frankly has been building because of COVID – we have to make sure everybody has the ability to participate in the economy. And right now, as we see it, people not only don’t have a chance to participate educationally, but they don’t have the opportunity a lot of times even to go look for a job without internet access, or to participate in commerce and those types of things that drive the economy.”

Heading into the pandemic, more than 321,000 households in Connecticut did not have high-speed internet — but only 57,000, or about 18%, of them were households with children under 18. Data are not available for how those numbers have changed in the intervening months.

The lack of access is more prevalent in the state’s cities, with about 40% of households in Bridgeport, Hartford, New Haven and Waterbury having no high-speed internet, according to Census Bureau data used in the report from 2018. Communities of color, low-income residents and older residents are most likely not to have connectivity in their homes: 35% of Hispanic households, 34% of Black households, 36% of low-income households and 36% of adults in the state over 65 do not have high-speed internet.

While many of these homes may have a smart phone to go online, the report explains the inferiority of such connections.

For example, when the pandemic left hundreds of thousands of people unemployed, Connecticut’s system to file unemployment claims performed poorly on mobile devices, according to a report from the Information Technology & Innovation Foundation. Students with high-speed internet also outperform those using a smartphone, according to a report from Michigan State University’s Quello Center for Media and Information Policy

How we compare

Despite hundreds of thousands of people in Connecticut not having access to high-speed internet, the problem seems to be worse elsewhere.

Connecticut ranked 10th in 2016 for the share of households with broadband.

What remains unclear is how state actions have narrowed the divide since the pandemic began – and whether governors used federal CARES Act money to get more devices and internet to families.

A rundown of actions taken to address the digital divide in schools released by the Center for Reinventing Public Education in late September shows that Connecticut stands out.

Since the pandemic closed schools, Gov. Ned Lamont has routed $44 million in federal funding to purchase 81,000 laptops and connect 60,000 homes to the internet. Those tallies came from the state asking every district how many laptops and internet connections would it take to reach universal access and after Dalio spent $20 million purchasing 60,000 laptops for high school students in the spring.

In two weeks, when the last of the laptops are expected to be delivered and the remaining internet connections are complete, every student who previously could not log on to school will have free access.

It’s unclear how that will impact student attendance and participation. During the second week of October, one in 34 students who signed up to learn entirely online didn’t log on even once during the week. The state doesn’t know how many remote students are missing multiple days or weeks and are chronically absent, though the state Department of Education is working to launch a better attendance tracking system that could go live as early as this week.

Nick Simmons, manager of the strategic initiatives in Lamont’s office, said that getting students connected was a priority and that widening that reach is on the administration’s radar. He pointed to the workgroup Lamont set up amid the pandemic with various state agencies to address internet access. That work started with students because schools closed, throwing the delivery of education into an immediate crisis.

“The goal is to make universal and high-speed internet accessible for all,” Simmons said. “This is absolutely one of the top priorities for Gov. Lamont. He sees universal access to broadband as just a human right in the 21st century … We want to look at all options and put forth a comprehensive plan.”

Now that the state has worked to address the digital divide in education, the focus needs to shift to everyone else, the author of the report said.

“I will say that a lot of the focus, appropriately, has been on households with students. At the same time, as the data suggests, from my report, there are older adults, there are other low-income households who need access, who have gotten somewhat less attention during the pandemic, in terms of addressing gaps,” said John Horrigan, author of the report and a senior fellow at the Technology Policy Institute.

The governor’s office is working to address this, said Simmons. He points out that the administration in the coming weeks plans to roll out a public information campaign – complete with TV and radio advertisements – to help people find one of the 200 public internet hotspots the administration has paid to set up, along with a rundown of where to get discounted internet from phone and cable providers.

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