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Chester County Press

Editorial: The cost of continuing to do nothing

01/17/2023 11:38AM ● By Richard Gaw

It took the dangers of a worldwide pandemic to fully comprehend the depth of one of the most alarming realities facing Chester County today.

Two years ago, Joan Holliday, a former public health nurse, and Jim Mercante, the former owner of a tech company, came together to form the Southern Chester County Digital Equity Coalition. The newly-formed organization’s mission took its motivation from the glaringly undersized internet connectivity and digital literacy that had been pervading the southern half of the county, the spotlight of which had been illuminated by the necessity to learn, connect and conduct life’s business online due to COVID-19.

In their research, Holliday, Mercante and volunteers with the Coalition quickly discovered that vast pockets of the region had not been the beneficiaries of internet service providers and were left barren of valuable connections.

They heard of hundreds of students in local school districts who fell behind academically because they had no home computers and were forced to communicate with their teachers and attend classrooms while standing in parking lots, desperately trying to get connection on their cell phones.

They uncovered giant swaths of communities – mostly in the underserved populations who work in the mushroom industry – who had no home computer, and if they did, their children would have to juggle for access to it.

They discovered that there are certain cross-sections of the population for whom digital literacy is a complete oxymoron, which kept them in the complete dark of being able to pay bills, communicate with healthcare professionals, or even communicate with their loved ones via Zoom during COVID-19.

Through the help of a $200,000 grant from the Pennsylvania Department of Labor, the Coalition helped create a broadband assessment study of the entire region. They enlisted the assistance of local organizations, school districts and businesses in its Digital Literacy Project training program, in order to provide computer literacy classes, with a focus on cyber security, e-mail, Zoom, and various apps and web connections.

For the past two years, the grass-roots work of the Southern Chester County Digital Equity Coalition and their many area partners has helped to address the wide-spread dilemma that continues to divide the county into haves and have-nots.

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If there is one flagrant misgiving in all of this grassroots commitment, it is that right now, in the halls of Chester County government, a department or commission to address these crucial issues of high-speed internet access and digital literacy for the entirety of Chester County and its schools, its homes and its businesses -- does not exist.

Let this truly sink in: In the richest county in Pennsylvania -- in a county whose three Commissioners consistently praise it for its innovations and accomplishments – in a county where it is seemingly always Morning in America – Chester County government has blindly turned its back to the crucial necessity of exploring all methods of connecting all of its citizens to the world and to each other.

This newspaper encourages the Chester County Commissioners and leaders across the county to create a dedicated department – perhaps tied to economic development or education – that will lock a long-term county plan for internet connectivity into place. This department or coalition would be charged with the responsibility of holding internet services providers accountable for broadening their communications reach to the more rural communities and municipalities in the county; for overseeing the expansion of communications infrastructure; for working with school districts throughout the entire county to develop ideas that will connect every student to the online information and access her or she needs to succeed; for developing entire educational networks that provide training in digital literacy; and for creating an across-the-board consortium of experts in the fields of technology, education, business and economic development.

It is both the experience and sensibility of this newspaper to know that while this directive will be read by those who believe in the strength of its possibility, it knows all too well that there will be those in county seats of influence who will scoff at the enormous cost of making such a department or coalition a reality in Chester County.

To them, we simply respond that they need to consider the cost of continuing to do nothing.