San Francisco's Digital Equity PlanAdapts with Coronavirus
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San Francisco's Digital Equity PlanAdapts with Coronavirus

Linda Gerull, CIO and Executive Director of the Department of Technology for the City and County of San Francisco

Linda Gerull, CIO and Executive Director of the Department of Technology for the City and County of San Francisco

The internet is transforming the way one engages with friends, family, healthcare, businesses, work, education, and so much more. Yet tools like high-quality internet are not regularly accessible to all San Franciscans. The City’s five-year Digital Equity plan is robust and grounded in extensive community research and surveys. But April 2020 changed priorities and accelerated work.

The global coronavirus pandemic threatened to widen gaps in the community San Francisco was working hard to alleviate. The need was urgent in many arenas—especially education. Research about missed school time reveals how lost instruction can set students behind their peers academically and socially. Many students stood to lose access to mentor adults, friends, counselling, and educational programming. Access to the internet at home had become absolutely essential.

As San Francisco Unified School District transitioned to a remote learning model, the City had to change the way it serves students overnight. The City picked up the pace of its fiber direct to housing programs, installing broadband in residences with high concentrations of youth in need and distributing Chromebooks and hotspots. But many students would need more support beyond access to the tangible tools for distance learning at home. Many would need help developing digital skills, require language supports or would need a safe environment for learning. The City had to innovate.

A Look at San Francisco’s Five-Year Digital Equity Vision

San Francisco’s Digital Equity Strategic Plan is a starting point to change the status quo to a more connected community. Through interviews and interactive workshops, hundreds of residents and dozens of stakeholder organizations provided input on where services are needed most. San Francisco’s strategic efforts continue to focus on three main areas:

● Expanding affordable, high-quality internet access through strategic partnership (including bringing free, high-speed Internet service to affordable housing residents throughout San Francisco)

● Launching digital literacy innovation programs to test novel new ways to provide technology training and support in high-need communities

● Establishing central leadership and accountability for measurable change

As the virus forced many to shelter-in-place at home, the City’s dedication to its students and mission to deliver equitable City services was presented with a new and urgent challenge. Thousands of students could not make the transition to remote learning because they lacked internet at home.

Meeting the Need with Neighborhood-Based Tech & Learning Support Sites

Guided by the City’s equity values, government agency and community organization experts in education, family services, digital equity, technology and logistics brainstormed ideas needed to quickly figure out how to deliver services to students with language, economic or social needs while also keeping everyone safe from the virus.

To support the largest number of students with the technology and resources for learning possible, the City quickly launched a network of neighborhood-based Community Learning Hubs. These Hubs provide full-day, in-person education; support youth access to technology; and provide additional enrichment programming, literacy and nature-based outdoor play and education.

In addition to the Community Learning Hubs, the Department of Technology focused on installing free, broadband internet service to public housing with high concentrations of students. Providing high-quality internet to public housing not only connects students, but low-income residents and seniors, who are then able to use the internet for medical care or work. Survey analysis from 2017 shows 30 to 40 percent of seniors, low-income, Black and Latino City residents and those who speak a primary language other than English lack access to internet at home. These numbers are disproportionately higher compared to other groups. Furthermore, thirty to forty percent of low-income residents and seniors do not have smartphones with data plans.

The precautions Community Hubs and City staff would take to prevent the spread of COVID-19—installing fiber in hallways and community rooms, not individual units, and carefully working with proper distancing and PPE—have been successful. No outbreaks have begun or spread via a Community Hub.

Connectivity: It Matters to Student Mental Health

While this work made it possible for many students continue to achieve alongside their peers, it also boosted student mental health. Out of nearly 400 parents who completed a survey about their neighborhood Hub, 87 percent reported that their student participated in distance learning more often because of the program and 90 percent felt their child is doing better emotionally because of the program.

The program also supported family mental health—ninety-two percent of parents said having their child at the program helps their own emotional wellbeing.

What Coronavirus Set in Motion Gets Carried Forward

The ways in which the coronavirus pandemic catalyzed the City’s digital equity efforts will have lasting impact. Providing fiber to affordable and public housing units where students live expands high-speed broadband access for many residents and seniors, providing access to telemedicine and other essential City services. The Community Hub network model also forges a foundation for future emergency response and recovery.

Access to high-quality, broadband-based internet is an essential service and San Francisco is prioritizing investments that will eliminate the digital divide long term. While the focus remains on student learning, communities and residents stand to benefit from a stronger fiber backbone and the internet now available at public and affordable housing locations. Providing fiber to affordable and public housing units where students live expands high-speed broadband access for many residents and seniors, providing access to telemedicine and other essential City services.

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