Local organizations seek to bridge the digital divide in Kent County

At a time when remote learning is required by many schools in Kent County, and support services like job application assistance are forced online, not all access is created equal. Especially for families and individuals without wifi or devices like tablets or chrome books in their homes, COVID-19 has exacerbated an already overwhelming digital divide that continues to grow along with the state's confirmed case count.

To fill the gap for those in desperate need of internet access, Kent County, Kent District Library, and the Kent County Essential Needs Task Force are each working on unique solutions for equal connectivity and access to vital information, services, and education.

"The county is huge [and] we still really struggle with high speed broadband throughout the county," says Mandy Bolter, Kent County Board of Commissioners Chair. Overseeing a county of almost 657,000 people, Bolter has been busy with essential services needs of people in urban centers, rural communities, and everything in between. One of the major needs of the public during COVID-19 is connectivity, especially when public access points shut down.

In her role, Bolter oversees various COVID-19 response projects, including the work of the COVID-19 Relief Subcommittee, a subset of the Board of Commissioners, that works to distribute Federal CARES Act funds. One of the subcommittee's current initiatives involves increasing free wifi access in public areas.

Recently, the subcommittee approved $2 million to install and fund the data for public hot spots on township-owned land, in the hopes to create 120 spots total that would provide enough data usage for 30-50 people at any given time. These hot spots will be located in urban centers like downtown Grand Rapids, as well as rural areas like Lowell Township, and in suburban neighborhoods like those in Plainfield Township.Kent County Hot Spot technology

Their purpose is “to meet the needs in rural areas where connectivity is low but also in urban areas where connectivity is cost-prohibitive,” says MaryBeth Vantil, Strategy and Performance Management Manager for Kent County.

Through her work on the project, Vantil and her team discovered “There is no good single map that tells you where we have free wifi and where we don’t," she says.

To determine where wifi was needed most, Vantil and her team got to work developing a map of internet access throughout the county, a map that previously didn't exist.

“We mapped out where we know, whether it be libraries or our own buildings, or other structures that have public access wifi … to see where the disparities were,” she says. Through this map, they were able to pinpoint 25 townships in need of free, public wifi, and began reaching out to their local governments, one by one.

As of the publication of this article, Vantil had signed agreements with confirmed interest with 14 townships, and planning was underway to determine the hot spots' overall cost and exact locations.

Eventually, says Vantil, “We do want to push out a map so people can see … [where] 24/7 you’re going to have public access points.” Such public access points include the 19 branches of the Kent District Library, that since COVID-19 hit Michigan in early March, have been working to increase wifi access to members of the public, including the over 15% of Kent County households lacking broadband internet access.

During the Stay Home, Stay Safe Order, all KDL branches were closed, but the libraries continued to offer database and curbside services. "In April and May, when the library buildings were closed and the physical collection was therefore inaccessible, the digital collection circulation was up 61% compared to the same timeframe the previous year," says KDL Data Coordinator Sheri Glon. Additionally, "In April and May, when schools were closed, database usage was up 75% compared to the same timeframe the previous year."Kent District Library mobile hot spot

When branches reopened, the libraries continued to adapt their services, offering free printing, and expanding their existing mobile hotspot program with an additional 700 devices that can be checked out for free by patrons. KDL staff even began mailing devices to individuals that were unable to travel to the branch. Very quickly, local advocates caught onto the program, and began requesting flyers and information for community members without access to wifi due to business closures and new social distancing requirements.

"There's a lot of interest, especially advocates working in the community that realize there's a need," says KDL Community Engagement Manager Sara Proaño.

KDL also maintains public access to wifi inside and outside of their facilities, extending to their parking lots. They have also implemented curbside pickup for books and other items, like launchpads, a learning tablet for kids that doesn't require a wifi connection. "[We are] trying to fill the gaps as we recognize that many students are doing social distance learning this year," says KDL Director of Library Services Carrie Wilson.

That's why the libraries continue to offer additional services like an extensive ebook and audiobook collection, databases for skills and language learning, and a full-service bookmobile that offers the same devices and free printing available at the physical branch. "[We offer] continued collaboration and partnership with local schools and institutions to pool resources and research and discover more sustainable ways to help Kent County residents gain fair and equitable access to internet connectivity, technology, and information," says Wilson.

This commitment to equal access to the internet is not a new issue, but one that has become a priority for other organizations as well as during COVID-19. The Kent County Essential Needs Task Force, led by Wende Randal, seeks to join together community partners to develop solutions to pressing issues in the county.

KDL Communications Specialist Katie Zuidema packs mobile hot spots for patrons."All existing and emerging areas of need are being discussed in a collaborative manner," says Randall. And together, the task force has determined that "digital connectivity is more and more vital for people to be able to survive and thrive anywhere in Kent County."

Operating to increase "digital inclusion" among all socioeconomic levels, racial and ethnic backgrounds, and languages, the ENTF is currently joining together partners in the exploratory stage of solutions-building around this topic. Still an informal group including the Kent Intermediate School District, GRPS, Kent County, The City of Grand Rapids, GRCC, and other local nonprofits, library systems, and internet providers, the ENTF is "Getting ahead of the game for digital inclusion," says Randall.

"Each household is going to be different," she adds. "We want to support broad communications for all residents of the county."
And the group is still collecting community members and organizations passionate about connectivity solutions, no matter their background or expertise. "We would love to have more voices in this conversation," says Randall.

For Vantil, who is working collaboratively with the ENTF, the question can be as simple as: "Do people even have a device to connect with? Do they know how to use it?” And technology literacy is just one of the many topics currently under exploration by the many partners in the ENTF.

KDL BookmobileFor now, the Kent District Library continues to offer essential services that keep kids plugged into remote lessons, job-seekers connected to job boards, and anyone seeking knowledge switched on to the deep learning resources the library offers.
KDL also recently began offering free access to a brand new scanner that translates documents into 100 languages documents in real-time, a game-changer for non-English speaking parents who must teach their kids from home in a language that is not their own. Whatever the access needs in Kent County, passionate individuals are striving to move the needle to make access for all a reality, and not just during COVID-10.

"The cool thing about KDL is that we have this amazing people in patron services. With a phone call you can get connected and get what you need," says Proaño.

Meanwhile, because the CARES Act stipulates that funds must be spent before the end of the year, Bolter and Vantil are working overtime to install vital hotspots that ensure public access throughout the county. "We're trying to go against the clock to get these purchased and up before December,” says Bolter.

"I just think it's important that we really continue to increase communication."

Photos by Kristina Bird of Bird + Bird Studio.
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