Digital Disparity in the Pandemic
Posted on June 4, 2020
After the shock of March’s school closures set in, the reality of what would be necessary to continue educating San Diego students hit hard. It wasn’t the standard school supplies that fill shopping lists in the fall; in order to keep learning, students from kindergarten through college need a computer. For those fortunate enough to have access to technology — a laptop or tablet and internet service — the primary barrier in the transition to “distance learning” is lifted. For others, it’s the difference between sustaining their education and bringing it to a full stop.
“The San Diego County Office of Education has indicated that one in four students in San Diego County does not have a computer at home,” says Chéri Pierre, CEO of nonprofit Computers 2 Kids, San Diego. “And that’s just K through 12. For the State of California, 50 percent of all low-income families are without a computer, so it’s more important than ever to try to solve the digital divide by making sure everybody gets a computer.”
That’s precisely where her organization steps in. At its heart, Computers 2 Kids, San Diego is a true win-win. Founded by Rancho Santa Fe residents Tammy and Larry Hershfield, the nonprofit takes in technology from private and corporate donors, thoroughly digitally “sanitizes” it, loads it with new software, and puts this crucial resource in the hands of San Diego students who would otherwise be unable to afford it. A collaborative partnership with Cox Communications provides free or reduced-cost internet service. Moreover, repurposing these computers saves equipment from being disposed of prematurely. “Most devices that come into our facility have a good two to five years of life still left in them,” says Pierre. “If you think about what that means, instead of having them shipped off to an asset management company and processed down for parts, we’re able to actually extend the life of the technology that’s around today.” Astonishingly, Pierre notes that for every 650,000 pounds of electronics that come through the facility, only 179,000 pounds are actually at their end of life.
Though it’s been in operation since 2004, when Tammy says she and Larry launched with a couple computers and worked from their garage, the COVID-19 pandemic has underscored the importance of closing the gap between the students who have access and those who don’t. “We are working as fast as we can, six days a week, ten-hour days, to place the computers, and we are getting requests from other states, which we’re trying to help as well,” says Tammy, who says they’ve been established as an essential needs nonprofit.
Both she and Pierre emphasize the significance of ensuring digital security, which tops their list of priorities and is also paramount to those who donate their computers. With rigid Department of Defense sanitation standards in place, all computers received are immediately wiped, and staff is thoroughly vetted — crucial, given that some of their donor partners include healthcare and government organizations. According to Pierre, even with this strict protocol, they are able to securely prepare 100 to 200 computers per day. A partnership with Microsoft allows C2K to purchase software at a reduced cost, which is partially offset by proceeds from the portion of donations that are recycled. A minimal $100 fee is charged per family, though, says Tammy, “We will not turn anyone away.”
Heightened demand means both funding (to help pay staff and underwrite software and other costs) and hardware donations are critical to their operation as requests for devices continue to stream in. “My concern is, once the fall rolls around, if [COVID-19] flares up again, more people are going to need computers,” says Tammy. Still, they are motivated rather than disheartened. “From a purely philanthropic point of view, I’m excited that there is attention being placed on this because it’s going to allow the community to be educated enough to know to donate their electronics to us, and hopefully this spotlight on the digital disparity is going to allow us to bridge that gap at a much faster rate,” says Pierre. c2sdk.org Deanna Murphy
Photography by Kaz Canning