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Chester County Press

Stakeholders engaging in plan to increase community access to technology

01/27/2021 10:39AM ● By Richard Gaw

By Richard L. Gaw

Staff Writer

Throughout its six-year tenure as one of the most influential resources for providing a hand up to underserved populations in the region, every project that the Southern Chester County Opportunity Network (SCCON) has entered into begins by introducing a simple community need.

At its Jan. 21 online presentation entitled “Crossing the Digital Divide,” the need was far from simple: How to increase access to technology – internet access, in particular -- to parts of our community, especially now when they truly need it.

Moderated by SCCON volunteer Jim Mercante, long-time community advocate Joan Holliday and Kennett Township Supervisor Whitney Hoffman, the one-hour presentation invited representatives from several local municipalities, as well as technical directors from the Unionville-Chadds Ford, Kennett Consolidated, Avon Grove and Oxford Area school districts.

Although the problem of spotty digital infrastructure is a global one that pervades healthcare, government and the economy, those in attendance at the meeting focused most of their attention locally, to those most at risk: schoolchildren.

In the four primary school districts in southern Chester County, entire pockets of students living through a hybrid-based education are seeing their learning suffer from not being able to keep up with their virtual classrooms due to poor broadband connections, or none at all.

Mercante praised the “heroic” work of local school districts during COVID-19, who are providing internet support through technology help desks, ZOOM meetings and in-person teaching for students. To illustrate their commitment, he told the story of one technology representative who recently entered into a home, only to find a child attempting to access the internet on a laptop computer that was balanced on a folding chair. The district was able to get a desk for the child, as well as in-home support.

“I can’t say enough about how amazing it is for families in our area – from Kennett Square to Oxford – to have these dedicated people help in these really trying times,” he said.

It’s not just the lack of bandwidth that is at the forefront of the problem, but a lack of education, he said.

“We need equitable access, reliability, affordability and resources to help with virtual technology learning,” Mercante said. “There is a technology gap among more than a few members of our community. In terms of understanding how to use technology, some have not actually turned on a computer before.”

From the time the pandemic arrived last March, SCCON began an across-the-board plan to address the need to develop a robust and modern technology infrastructure that would extend to its underserved populations. Last May, it formed an education discovery group and created three committees: one that developed learning pods in the community that would put virtual learning into the hands of students, now in place at Chatham Financial; a second that created a parent education committee that connects social service agencies with families, to teach them the basics of computer technology; and a third that formed a consortium of technology experts in the area.

SCCON’s work isn’t ending there.

To get a better picture of where the problems exist, the network is collecting data through the use of a mapping tool that will determine where the key technology “dead zones” exist. In addition, the group intends to seek solutions through communication with service providers; spearhead efforts to broaden the reach of their work by making similar presentations to other municipalities and agencies throughout Chester County; and

recruit volunteers to help develop a long range strategic plan.

“How do we even the playing field?” Hoffman asked. “It’s going to end up that our citizens who are most vulnerable will not have access to applying to jobs online, or getting access to government information, or access to health appointments by telemedicine.

“All of the communication channels that are now changing because of COVID will transition to the post-COVID world. The common denominator to all of this will be to have a robust, modern infrastructure, and we can only get there if we identify where the problems are.”

To contact Staff Writer Richard L. Gaw, email [email protected].