Bridging the Digital Divide in the Age of COVID-19

By: Talia Evans, Media Relations Specialist, Kansas City Public

As stay-at-home orders and social distancing recommendations were handed down as COVID-19 spread, the first thought on the minds of so many at the Kansas City Public Library was, ‘how can we still help our community?’ More importantly, what about those who rely on us for access to a computer and the internet?

After figuring out the basics, the focus quickly shifted to the digital divide which exists in our city. Citywide, 13 percent of all homes don’t have a computer and 17 percent are without the internet.

To start, we partnered with the Kansas City Public School District and Connecting For Good, an organization that accepts donations of computers and computer accessories. The city of Kansas City donated more than 500 computers to Connecting For Good, the district provided Wi-Fi hotspots and helped identify 75 families who would benefit the most from a computer giveaway. Each family received a computer, Wi-Fi hotspot, and headphones provided by Commerce Bank. The Library hosted and partnered with a local non-profit, Turn the Page, to gather activity packets for each family as well.

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In addition to helping students keep up with online learning, the computers and hotspots benefited others within those households to do everyday tasks required to continue with life through the COVID pandemic.

 “Our three core values – connectivity equals opportunity, education is the path out of poverty, and internet access is as essential a utility as water and electricity – come to life every day that we partner with the Library on vital Digital Inclusion services,” said Connecting For Good founder Tom Esselman.  “We are proud to be in a city with a strong and socially conscious Library system. Especially during times of crisis, the abundance of Library resources helps our community to stay safe--and connected.”

The Library also served as a testing site for the school district’s Wi-Fi enabled bus, a partnership with LeanLab Education to further bridge the digital divide. The district hoped the Wi-Fi bus would allow students to quickly download and upload assignments while they continued schooling remotely.

Next, the focus is on families and individuals without school-aged children who don’t have the school district as a resource. Along with a call for more donations, the task force is focusing on raising awareness of the digital divide and its impact on the economy.

The Library’s partnership with Connecting For Good and Kansas City Public Schools is longstanding and critical says Carrie Coogan, the Library’s Deputy Director for Public Affairs and Community Engagement. “The Library will continue to partner and collaborate in this time of crisis,” she says, “providing support and resources to bridge the digital divide where needed."

Now, the group has broadened its focus to the entire city. In June, Coogan joined representatives from the city and the Urban League of Kansas City to present a resolution to city council. It tasks the city with providing all Kansas City residents, students, and small businesses with the following:

  • Access to reasonably priced, reduced-cost, or free internet services.
  • Access to free or low-cost computers and necessary hardware.
  • Access to training, education, and necessary technical support.

The resolution received unanimous council support, and the city manager’s office formed a committee to collect proposals and create a plan by the start of the next school year.