The coronavirus has brought the lives of people and systems across the globe to a grinding halt. Governments, health officials and educational leaders are taking actions they hope will contain and reduce the adverse long-term impacts on society. Now with schools closed, large assemblies banned and many colleges, universities and schools have stopped face-to-face classes and implemented a strategy of online tutelage for all students the remainder of the spring semester.
While the decision to move to online education is a logical action to reduce the spread of the coronavirus, it fails to take into account the number of households and students who do not have access to the Internet or a personal computer necessary to access their online classes. The New York Times reports nearly a million households in NYC (28 percent) do not have access to the Internet, or if they do, it is at speeds slow by today’s standards. It is not surprising this lack of access is concentrated in low-income communities. The decision to move to online education without a plan for addressing this deficiency perpetuates the digital divide and again highlights the ways in which low-income communities are excluded from benefiting from the technology that is revolutionizing how we work, communicate and do business in the 21st century. This action reflects thinking of individuals who are part of the “class of privilege” who take these technologies for granted.
The recent Center for an Urban Future’s report on the need for NYC to build a Tech Education and Training Infrastructure states
The fast-growing technology sector represents one of the best opportunities for New Yorkers from low-income backgrounds to springboard into the middle class. But too many New Yorkers from low-income communities lack the required early exposure, hands-on skills, and educational credentials needed to compete for these jobs.
To create a tech sector that reflects the diversity of New York while greatly expanding access to economic opportunity, city leaders will need to set ambitious goals and commit to a bold and long-term agenda to expand and improve the tech skills-building ecosystem—starting with investments in the K–12 education system, where policymakers can have the greatest impact.
In a crisis such as we face with COV-19, the digital divide underscores that we live in a “class privilege” society which puts lives at risk when one million New Yorkers cannot access the information they need or keep up with their education. The City University of New York is in a position to take on the challenge of reducing the digital divide given its mission, the demographics of its students and the many low-income communities it serves.
To begin to raise the technological literacy of the residents of Harlem and the lack of preparation of Black and Latino students for high-paying jobs in the tech sector, City College in collaboration with Science and Arts Engagement New York, a not-for profit 501(c)3 corporation, created the Harlem Gallery of Science, an innovative cultural space that brings science and technology alive by creating interactive exhibition based on popular everyday themes, such as basketball, music and contagion, through which the concepts of STEM are introduced. The Gallery’s project-based experiential learning experiences will also help build essential skills, such as critical thinking, complex problem solving, teamwork and communication skills. These are the very skills executives say are critical to successful careers in the tech industries.
The Coronavirus crisis presents a critical chance in addressing the opportunity gap that limits Black and Latino youth from low income communities from entering the growing tech sector in New York City thus depriving them access to above average salary jobs and impeding their upward mobility into the middle class. These youth are also an underutilized resource, depriving New York City of critically needed trained personnel to meet the growing demand of tech companies located in the city. Among the adverse consequences of not addressing the opportunities the growing tech sector offers is to perpetuate the social injustice that exits and the opportunity to address it through employment in the growing tech sector is lost.
Programs such as the Harlem Gallery of Science can help develop an ecosystem to support STEM education and creation of career pathways into the tech sector of NYC as well as being a key element in developing an ecosystem that reduces the digital divide gap so all our communities are equipped to deal with the next global crisis that comes along.
Stan Altman is the president of Science and Arts Engagement New York