Lexington, Ky (June 16, 2020) –We began 2020 with a bang as we looked forward to a new decade with the Summer Olympics in our sights. The Olympics represent an important time when the world comes together to celebrate the best in athletic achievement. Unfortunately, COVID-19 resulted in cancellation of the Olympics (and most in-person events), and the deadly virus continues to devastate communities across the world.
We at Connected Nation are continuing our mission of helping communities increase economic opportunity via the expansion of broadband access, adoption, and use. We continue to empower people with technology skills and resources that provide economic opportunities, jobs, healthcare, education and an improved quality of life. No one could have imagined that in a little over three months, most of the country would be shut down as we faced a global pandemic. No one could have imagined that over 2 million Americans would be infected by COVID-19, over 100,000 people would be lost, and millions would be unemployed as states shut down everything (except essential services) and implemented social-distancing measures.
Transitioning to Working and Learning at Home
While some organizations did not have a choice but to close their doors and let go of staff, some were able to transition staff to working from home. Additionally, school districts were suddenly faced with the challenge of transitioning students to distance learning. A mad scramble ensued to figure out how to provide devices and high-speed internet to children from houses that lacked such connectivity. This unforeseen situation helped to highlight the issue of the digital divide and digital inequality – particularly for children from vulnerable communities. For many of us in the nonprofit, public and private sectors who have been aware of and working toward bridging the digital divide, the issue of children lacking connectivity at home was not a surprise. But for many in communities across the country, it was a rude awakening.
As schools looked for quick solutions, internet service providers signed onto FCC Chairman Ajit Pai’s Keep Americans Connected Pledge, which was designed to keep U.S. households connected as we struggle with the pandemic. Additionally, some providers expanded low-cost programs to offer free services to eligible vulnerable communities for a limited timeframe and to support the needs of school systems. While it’s too early to analyze the impact of the COVID-19 crisis, there is anecdotal evidence that some schools had to provide paper workbooks to students, others provided laptops/tablets and mobile hotspots to students, and others simply were unable to overcome the digital learning gap. If we can look at the bright side of these challenging times, we can say that this crisis has heightened the urgency to address the digital learning gap. The education entities, government, nonprofits, and broadband service providers are coming together to come up with ways of addressing the issues related to access, adoption, and use.
Expanding Telehealth and Telemedicine to Save Lives
One outcome of the coronavirus is the rapid expansion of telehealth and telemedicine services. Since the beginning of the lockdowns, healthcare providers and patients across the country have been utilizing telehealth services and applications, allowing individuals to safely continue seeing their providers. Federal and state government took rapid steps to expand the use of telehealth. According to The National Law Review,“The steps taken included temporary executive and regulatory orders, emergency legislation, and sub-regulatory guidance, which resulted in expanded reimbursement by private and public payors, easing of professional licensing requirements, and waiver of certain technical requirements to allow for the use of different types of technology.” Some of the steps recently taken to minimize telehealth barriers were addressed in our Michigan telehealth report, which was released just weeks before the lockdowns. The study revealed six key issues that needed to be addressed to improve and expand telehealth in rural Michigan (and likely other rural areas):
- Access to and use of home broadband service is often too low in rural areas.
- Rural Michiganders have concerns about the safety of their online information.
- Telehealth services are not reimbursed at all or are reimbursed at a lower level than in-person healthcare services.
- Healthcare providers need additional funding to support expansion and improvement of telehealth services.
- Telehealth technology must become more integrative by adopting and learning how to use new tools and procedures for each telehealth application.
- Support for telehealth in Michigan is scattershot and needs to be more organized and targeted.
In times of adversity, such as what we’re facing today, one thing remains certain: Low-income communities and historically disenfranchised communities have and will continue to bear the brunt of the challenges. This is evident from the disproportionate impact of the digital learning gap on vulnerable communities and the poor health outcomes for communities of color and seniors. We are committed to our vision that everyone belongs in a Connected Nation. In order to achieve that vision, we continue to work to address the challenges of digital equity and inclusion. While we can’t make the pandemic go away, we are committed to doing our part — and that includes working with partners, communities, governments, and other nonprofits to expand digital equity and to ensure that all Americans are afforded opportunities via access to broadband.
About the Author: Heather Gate is the Director of Digital Inclusion. She is responsible for strategy development and implementation of programs that impact Digital Inclusion for all people in all places. She provides project management services including identification of program challenges and goals as well as day-to-day oversight and funding research. Heather also serves on the Federal Communications Commission’s Advisory Committee on Diversity and Digital Empowerment (ACDDE).
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