By Barry Waldman
When you search for information on COVID-19, make airline reservations, seek reviews on toasters, videoconference for work or watch your child attend school virtually, you likely take for granted the device on which you work, the high-speed internet connection that makes it possible and your ability to use this technology.
The coronavirus laid bare the existing inequity in digital access and literacy in low-income communities around the tri-county area. Despite urgent efforts by schools to outfit families with devices and high-speed internet, that inequity, and its impact on learning, earning and prospering in those communities, persists.
Nearly 100,000 people in the region lack the broadband infrastructure necessary to fully participate economically, academically and recreationally.
Take the case of Diane Wynn of North Charleston, who cares for her grandson, Kaysen Johnson. When COVID-19 hit and schools closed in 2020, she was forced to leave her hospitality management job to care for him while his first-grade class met remotely.
Though given a laptop by Chicora Elementary School, their Wi-Fi hotspots cut in and out, disrupting his learning. Wynn lacked the computer literacy to help Kaysen when he ran into issues. When the semester ended, the laptop had to be returned, leaving Kaysen without connectivity to the internet.
To combat this problem, Charleston Mayor John Tecklenburg, Tricounty Cradle to Career Collaborative and its many partners launched a Digital Equity and Inclusion Initiative this month.
“We’ve learned that access to broadband and digital inclusion were of significant importance to families, educators, businesses and students throughout the tri-county region,” TCCC Executive Director Phyllis Martin said. “We all know that internet and online learning are critical to in school and out of school academic achievement and are vital to sustain the economic vitality and growth of our area.”
Comcast offers high-speed internet service to low-income families in the Charleston metro for $9.95 a month, with 35,000 customers signing up for the service. As part of this initiative, the company has launched the state’s first “lift zone,” free gig Wi-Fi at St. Julian Devine Community Center on Charleston’s East Side. TCCC has placed a navigator in the center to help families access the internet and use the devices.
A series of events is planned for the city’s digital inclusion and equity week, including a fair at Trident Technical College’s downtown campus at 66 Columbus St., which included signups for Comcast’s discounted broadband, a resource fair and the giveaway of 50 Chromebooks.
Events also are planned for Berkeley and Dorchester counties in April.
A variety of Lowcountry programs target digital literacy, provided by a host of groups including the Charleston County Public Library, Women In Tech and Goodwill, but Martin expressed the need to align and integrate these resources.
TCCC proposes to send advocates into low-income communities to gather firsthand information about barriers to digital access and “support families on their tech journey and make the connection to activities that enhance their lives including telehealth and telemedicine, online banking and training and education,” Martin said.