More Duluthians and Minnesotans are working from home, safely distanced against the spread of the coronavirus. In the days ahead, thousands of students will return to classes — by logging on from home.
But not every household has a computer or tablet. And not every family can afford to connect to the internet. In Duluth, an estimated 6,000 homes (about 16%) are without a computer, according to a 2018 survey. Another 6,000 lack an internet connection. In addition, a Duluth school district survey found that approximately 1,700 students lack computers or internet access, about one out of every five students.
“There are large disparities,” Pam Kramer, executive director of Duluth LISC, said in an interview held virtually this week with the News Tribune Opinion page. “That’s one of the biggest barriers, keeping people connected and making sure that they have enough access, that their kids can stay connected, and making sure that they’re able to work from home if that’s the requirement.”
Eliminating those disparities and breaking down those barriers — in other words, closing the so-called digital divide — is an aim being taken on with stepped-up urgency in Duluth and across Minnesota. Nonprofits like the neighborhood-supporting Duluth LISC, the city of Duluth’s Workforce Development department, the Duluth school district, and others (including the statewide PCs for People, Community Action Duluth, the Lighthouse Center for Vision Loss in Duluth, St. Louis County, SOAR Career Solutions, Duluth’s Ecolibrium3, and Center City Housing) are all working together on this.
“A number of different organizations were having the same thought at the same time, which is that everything has moved virtual and we have a tremendous number of people who just don’t have computers or internet at home,” Duluth Workforce Development Director Elena Foshay told the Opinion page. “We just sort of said, ‘Let’s come together and start to coordinate so that we’re not duplicating efforts and so that we can find resources to benefit all of us.’ … It just came up over and over again in conversations with the community as a big challenge.”
An encouragingly collaborative community effort has emerged, and it is called the Duluth Digital Inclusion Partnership. Already it’s making great strides, including a neighborhood Wi-Fi project in Lincoln Park; training for information-technology jobs; more than 300 devices, many accompanied by data plans, handed out in Duluth and countywide; and 1,500 Chromebooks for Duluth school district students who need them, along with $30-a-month internet access plans.
Many of the efforts are being bolstered by the federal CARES Act, passed by Congress to help cover the costs of dealing with COVID-19. Kramer and Foshay are co-chairs of the Duluth Digital Inclusion Partnership.
“There are a lot of things happening simultaneously,” Foshay said. “The devices are almost the easy part. That’s just money in, money out. It’s the internet connectivity that’s harder. We really need internet providers to step up and provide more discount-rate options for folks, just recognizing that now an internet connection is an essential. It’s like a utility. Everyone needs it. It’s like electricity. There needs to be more affordable options for internet connectivity.”
In addition to calling on internet providers to offer discounts to those who otherwise can’t afford to get connected, the partnership is calling on the community for financial support and on corporations updating their technology to donate their old computers. (Donations of old household computers aren’t wanted.)
If you can offer help, contact Duluth LISC (lisc.org/duluth/, 218-727-7761).
If you need help, contact Community Action Duluth (communityactionduluth.org, 218-726-1665).
If you’re a Duluth public schools student in need of a device or internet access to attend classes, contact the school district (isd709.org, 218-336-8700).
The digital divide is as real and urgent here in Duluth as anywhere, and COVID-19 only makes it worse. Students and others can’t just log on at the library, as they’re wisely being discouraged from gathering, including around hotspots.
But the progress being made by a lot of well-intentioned Duluthians and Duluth organizations and other entities is already encouraging. And, “Wouldn’t it be nice for something to come out of this COVID experience like recognizing that technology and connectivity are utilities and necessities?” as Kramer posed. “We’re being creative and working together. It would be wonderful if after this (pandemic), people were actually better off in this area than they were in the past.”