Digital Equity: Don’t Forget Seniors

By April Berg

The COVID-19 epidemic has exposed, or simply made worse, many inequities in our society. Those without sufficient health care are at greater risk of not seeking medical attention and treatment. Lower income neighbors face a greater risk of housing insecurity or bankruptcy. Many higher income earners can work from home with minimal disruption or exposure, while working class people either lose work, or face greater risk behind checkout stands, in hospitals, or construction sites.

Access to technology has also become more important than even in these months of distancing and closure, especially for students who need high speed internet and computing resources to learn, and seniors for whom technology is often a lifeline to telemedicine, shopping and delivery, and checking in with friends and loved ones.

As a school board director, I work tirelessly to get students in our community access to broadband internet so they can complete schoolwork and participate in enrichment activities. Yet for seniors in Snohomish County who don’t have reliable, stable broadband, there is no advocacy or support. This must change, especially as we enter into what looks to be a prolonged period of distancing and cautious re-opening.

Digital equity can be achieved for both seniors and students if we treat broadband internet as a basic utility and not a luxury. This public health crisis has shown that local, state and federal leaders must advocate for universal broadband access through policy changes and legislation. Seniors– and people of all ages– need a champion to make sure we all have access to the online tools needed to thrive.

We can achieve this through innovative public-private partnerships, where governments can work with existing providers to purchase bulk assets for low income senior living facilities, retirement communities, or for individuals– not unlike how bulk prescription pricing has lowered costs of needed medicine. In areas where localized municipal broadband or other alternatives exist, similar low-cost pricing can be negotiated to make sure everyone has access and connectivity.

Hooking up is not often enough, especially for those unaware of latest technology tools, how to keep safe from scams and exploitation, and even managing basic technical issues. That’s why just as we teach young people and struggling family’s financial literacy, we should make internet literacy available to older neighbors, providing skills and resources for safe, confident, and private enjoyment of online materials and tools. Again, partnerships with local community colleges, even apprenticeships for local youth, could help bridge this gap. Let’s have young people teach the rest of us a thing or two!

As we navigate these uncertain and often isolating times, we need to redouble our efforts to help everyone get the tools to stay connected, stay safe, and keep learning and growing. With the right leaders, and a little creativity, we can address the digital equity gap– for all of us.

April Berg serves on the Everett School Board. She lives in Mill Creek.