Students working outside on computers at Walker Elementary School in Mira Mesa. Courtesy San Diego Unified

By Nathan Fletcher

COVID-19 has not created all of the inequities in our society, but it certainly has exacerbated them. And it has shown them in a way that no one can look away. We are compelled to take action. One of the inequities under the spotlight is the digital divide — the ability for every member of society to be able to access reliable Internet connectivity.

When we moved to distance learning earlier this year, not everyone had access to MacBook Pros or high-speed Internet. Our schools had to scramble to deploy Chromebooks and temporary wifi hotspots. Schools did a great job securing devices and they should be commended. But they need help on connectivity. Although we were able to get many kids connected, the ease of access and cost still pose a substantial barrier for many families — a burden that has been exacerbated by the pandemic. And one we had to fight hard to help address.

To illustrate this point, I want to share the story of Brian Martinez from Chula Vista who was one of the winners of Metropolitan Transit System’s annual essay contest. His family only had one computer and it kept breaking down, so he couldn’t finish the essay to win a laptop on it, but managed to do it from his phone while still having to be a tutor and teacher to his three younger brothers while his parents worked all day. His story is remarkable, but all too relatable for too many of our students and their families.

Through this initiative, MTS provided free laptops to 40 teens in recognition of the important value that computers have for their academic success. You can watch more about this great program here.

We talk about our teens as digital natives, but that does not always extend to the tools necessary to be successful in an academic environment.

I recognized that the County of San Diego needed to do more to support our children. To further that aim, I secured more than $3 million in funding in partnership with the County Office of Education and The San Diego Foundation to ensure our students in need have access to no-cost Internet. This incredible partnership is helping hundreds of students get connected so they can succeed at school. Our students most at risk of falling behind at school are also those who may not have high-speed access or the latest Apple product. That’s why this investment is needed.

We also have taken a deeper look at other aspects of our society that are impacted by the digital divide.

I have led efforts to reform the child welfare system and the way the county interacts with students who are now disconnected from the traditional means for a child welfare service referral — which is at school. In May 2020, I initiated a unique program to reach youth and families who were disconnected from school during distance learning.

Nathan Fletcher

School districts countywide can identify youth who are absent, or seem to be struggling in daily interactions with teachers. After families are identified, a social worker represented by one of the community-based providers reaches out to the family and offers support to help address family needs with the goal of getting the youth reconnected with school. As of September, this program has received referrals for 1,061 families for prevention services. The most common needs are rent, housing, food, utility assistance, wifi, and computers.

We also know that the digital access expands the options of those who need healthcare. At the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, when the stay-at-home order was put in place, county behavioral health services contractors experienced an 80% reduction in demand for mental health, alcohol and drug services. It became clear that access to behavioral health services had been strained during the pandemic because all providers did not have the technology, staff or training to provide services through telemedicine.

Health plans prior to the pandemic did not reimburse for telehealth visits for mental health and substance abuse, so it is not a stretch to think they did not have the ability to change their model quickly and needed help with unanticipated capital costs. There were zero telehealth visits being claimed in the county behavioral health system in February and March, then a marked increase in April to June.

It was clear that increased access to telemedicine technology was imperative to increasing utilization of community services during the pandemic and could help prevent hospitalizations. So in August, I initiated funding to support local behavioral health providers in enhancing their telemedicine capacities

These are all important examples of how the County of San Diego has stepped up to meet the need in the community. We are advancing toward a goal of a more equitable region, but digital inequality remains a substantial barrier. It is certainly my hope that we are laying the framework to build a better way for society, one that is more just and has the actual resources needed for success.

Digital connectivity should be more accessible for everyone. It is in my hope that we take a hard look at the challenges in our region and begin to make progress toward addressing these inequities. We already have laid the groundwork for a successful recovery.

Supervisor Nathan Fletcher represents District 4, which stretches from La Jolla to Lemon Grove and is the most ethnically diverse district.