Digital gaps underscore need: “Tech para todos”

Boston Statehouse

BOSTON (SNHS) – Pointing to the ways in which the pandemic has forced many aspects of life online, one advocacy group is looking to bring attention to Latinx students in Massachusetts who lack access to digital devices and broadband services.

Education Committee Chairs Rep. Alice Peisch and Sen. Jason Lewis and Latinos for Education hosted a briefing Tuesday that drew upwards of 50 participants including a number of state representatives, to discuss how access to technology and support services affect Latinx students during the pandemic.

The pandemic has forced work, school, gatherings and even health services into the virtual realm, so much of 2020 has been spent looking at computer screens. Lorena Lopera, executive director of Latinos for Education’s state chapter, said lacking a device or connectivity is “unacceptable and puts families in great danger.”

“For students, it’s almost as if they’re not enrolled in school, and they’re in the shadows of our education system,” Lopera said. “We must ensure tech para todos, that everyone has the technology that they need to participate.”

Latinos for Education CEO Amanda Fernández said Latinx students make up 25 percent of the nation’s public school students and in cities like Boston and Worcester, they make up over 40 percent of the student population.

“We want to make sure we continue to put a focus on closing equity gaps with equitable funding for low-income communities that really need the services and supports as a means to help and an opportunity to help start closing these opportunity gaps,” Fernández said.

The organization surveyed 288 Spanish speaking families, 60 multisector leaders, and 60 educators to better understand how COVID-19 impacted Latinx students and families.

The group found that 46 percent of parents found their child was experiencing learning loss as a result of the pandemic, 21 percent said their households lacked access to devices and connectivity, and 74 percent were worried about income or food insecurity as a result of the pandemic.

“Now, we know that these issues are interrelated. And while our students in our community are facing many challenges, the digital access and connectivity is one that is most time-sensitive and one that we can solve,” Lopera said.

The group is pushing Gov. Charlie Baker to support language in the fiscal 2021 budget that would establish a commission to assess and develop recommendations for improving access to broadband internet and telecommunications services in the state, particularly in low-income, rural, and communities of color. The commission would submit a report with study results and recommendations to the Legislature by July 31, 2021.

“We’re optimistic that Gov. Baker will approve this language in the final budget,” Lopera said. “Residential broadband access has become crucial to work, education, and health, and Americans recognize this need.”

Daniel Noyes, Co-CEO of Tech Goes Home, said he has witnessed firsthand the divide that exists for households with little to no access to broadband services or devices after working in the Boston Public Schools system for 10 years.

His company helps communities and students overcome barriers by providing access to computers, the internet, and trainings. The group has graduated 22,000 from its program and distributed over 14,000 new computers.

Noyes said around 486,000 households in the state don’t have a computer and about 400,000 lack access to the internet. The issue, he said, is not unique to Massachusetts as about one-third of all American workers have little to no digital skills.

“What this means is that adults cannot apply for jobs. Nearly all employers these days require online job applications. That’s from CVS to Home Depot to Walmart to anywhere you want to work, you don’t go in,” he said. “It means that students, as we talked about earlier, cannot participate in learning, attend their virtual classes. It means seniors become more isolated, cut off from their loved ones.”

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