I was in 6th grade at a New York City public school when the pandemic hit and schools closed last March. I knew it would be a problem for some of my classmates, who didn’t have cell phones or laptops and already had to do computer homework at school during recess. With schools shut down, these kids were suddenly deprived of the opportunity to learn at all. They simply didn’t have the computers and/or the internet access needed to be educated online.
Sure enough, these kids disappeared, their faces never to appear on Zoom, and teachers would frequently ask if anyone had heard from them. Soon they stopped asking. I was thinking of my classmates, and all of the other kids who felt left out, excluded and even lonely when I started Including You, a peer-to-peer mentoring and philanthropic organization.
In addition to bringing together kids with disabilities with kid volunteers for friendship, learning and fun, Including You also focuses on digital inclusion. Since last Spring, through donations from friends and family, a GoFundMe campaign, and donations of used computers, I’ve been able to distribute over 200 devices to kids who need them for remote learning, mostly in New York City.
But my work is not done.
A few weeks after NYC public schools opened in October 2020, the NYC DOE reported that 77,000 students still lacked the devices they needed for remote learning. By Thanksgiving break, that number was still 60,000. Before the winter holidays, then-NYC Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza vowed to get devices to every student before holiday break, but based on the requests I received for devices from parents, teachers and students at that time, this goal does not appear to have been met.
As of this week, I am still fulfilling requests from NYC public school teachers for devices, not only for their students, but for themselves! In the Fall, Chancellor Carranza cited a nationwide shortage as the reason for the delay, and perhaps that is still a factor. But of course, that’s not the only reason.
As I’ve distributed devices, I’ve had the opportunity to meet many devoted (and often tearful) teachers and speak to many impacted kids who have shared their lived experiences being on the wrong side of the digital divide. Sometimes, they lacked a device because parents couldn’t get to school to sign necessary paperwork, or language barriers prevented them from realizing devices were available to their kids. But mostly, it seems, their schools just lacked the resources. These kids were knocking on the virtual classroom door, and no one would let them in.
I can cite lots of startling statistics about those impacted by the digital divide, but that doesn’t tell the whole story.
I soon turned my attention to New York City when I read about Kimani, who was threatened with truancy and her Mom an ACS report because she lacked a device needed for remote learning – one the school knew she was on a waiting list to receive. After giving Kimani a laptop, I was flooded with requests, and met many wonderful kids who were overjoyed to be reunited with their friends and teachers upon receiving a laptop.
The first laptop I gave away was to a girl in Mississippi my family sponsors through a nonprofit. Her school-issued device was stolen, and her mom was told she would have to pay for a new one if her daughter was to participate in remote learning – an expense far beyond her means. This mom was so proud of her daughter, who is about my age, loves school, and has overcome some developmental delays and made great progress in class. To have been shut out of the classroom would have been devastating to her.
Some stories particularly touch my heart – the high schooler whose dad left his phone home each day for her and her brother to share for school, and who couldn’t finish her AP exam when the phone glitched; the 20 kids with hearing impairment whose parents couldn’t communicate in sign language, about to be cut off from the only people with whom they could converse when it was time to turn in the school-issued computers; the mom who left everything behind to escape with her kids to a domestic violence shelter, causing her already-traumatized kids to miss out on the comforting normalcy of remote school. The foster child with no one to advocate for her until an agency stepped in and reached out for a device.
These are the faces behind the statistics. And we have to do more to help them.
Much of my ability to get devices to those who need them has been powered by the generosity of individuals – kind people who donated to my GoFundMe or who stopped by my apartment with laptops that needed a new home. I’ve also been grateful for laptop donations from or promotion of my efforts by three corporations. But I am asking the corporate sector to do more.
Offices throughout New York City and the country sit empty, and some may never reach the same capacity again. I ask them: If you have devices that you no longer need, don’t let them end up somewhere in storage, or get disposed of – donate them to an organization like mine! And, just like so many large corporations have been helping promote vaccination efforts, I ask good corporate citizens to extend a hand to help with the issue of tech inequity, and work with the government to do so, too.
I am excited about Mayor DeBlasio’s Internet Master Plan for Universal Broadband and the initial steps he’s taken to provide affordable high-speed internet access to all. I’m also encouraged that Vice President Harris will lead the Biden Administration’s efforts to make broadband more accessible nationwide. But I would like to remind them this is only part of the problem (albeit an equally pressing one). All the broadband in the world won’t help if a child is sitting at home with nothing to connect it to. And no one to connect with.
Some kids will likely continue with remote learning in the Fall, and of those who will be educated in-person, many will be expected to complete homework that requires access to a computer. For all of the adults with the capacity to help, I have a homework assignment for you: Let’s work together to get a device into the hands of every student in the United States who needs it. Tech equity is educational equity.