Baltimore students work to solve massive gap in internet accessibility

The COVID-19 pandemic brought with it rapid shifts in just about every aspect of life as we know it, including the education system.

As many classrooms pivoted to online learning, 16-year-old Baltimore City College student Yashira Valenzuela began to realize how many Baltimore students lacked access to affordable high-speed internet.

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The digital divide plaguing the Maryland city is truly shocking. The Baltimore Fishbowl reports that limited broadband internet access impacts more than 40 percent of residents and an estimated 96,000 households do not have access to broadband internet. In Baltimore City, roughly 20,000 families with children under the age of 17 do not have broadband internet or a computer, the outlet also notes.

Considering the massive role digital connectivity plays in remote education, Valenzuela and fellow members of Baltimore City College’s Students Organizing a Multicultural and Open Society (SOMOS) decided they wanted to do something to bridge the gap, which affects mostly low-income families.

“It’s extremely important to have internet access,” Valenzuela told In The Know. “It is a human right … seeing how much we use it on a daily basis, especially students. Now that the pandemic is here, students and families have to stay home [and] parents don’t have enough money to afford any of these necessities. It was just really astounding seeing the [number] of students who have been struggling for so long.”

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Valenzuela, along with her fellow SOMOS members, decided in April to take action to increase digital access across the city by targeting Baltimore lawmakers.

The student activists successfully enlisted First District Council Member Zeke Cohen, who ultimately introduced a bill that would allow the city government to provide emergency funding for food access, digital devices and expanded internet access, the Baltimore Fishbowl reports. The bill unanimously passed and enabled $3 million from the city’s Children and Youth Fund to be put toward the purchase of Chrome Books for more than 10,000 students across the city — a major win for Valenzuela and SOMOS.

The group has now turned its attention toward large corporations and what they can do to help the city survive amid turmoil and inequity worsened by the coronavirus.

“We were able to hold rallies here in the city targeted towards the big companies here, asking them in a more strong manner to do their part,” Valenzuela said.

One company that has been pulling its weight during the pandemic, Valenzuela says, is In The Know’s parent company, Verizon, through its responsible business plan, Citizen Verizon.

Under the new commitment, Verizon will provide 10 million youths with the digital training necessary to thrive in a modern economy and provide 1 million small businesses with resources that will help them thrive in the digital economy by 2030.

The company will also expand high-quality broadband access to underserved rural communities and support a wide array of digital inclusion initiatives.

“I think what Verizon’s responsible business plan is doing to bridge the digital divide is pretty inspiring,” Valenzuela said. “I see that SOMOS is not alone. There are other organizations that are trying to make the same change.”

Starting in the 2020 school year, Verizon will provide free technology and internet access to an additional 111 incoming middle and high schools including the following Baltimore Public Schools — Holabird Academy Middle School, Vanguard Collegiate Middle School, Walter P. Carter Middle School and Graceland Park-O’Donnell Heights Middle School as part of this initiative.

“Seeing how Verizon is committed to wanting to bridge the digital divide is making me really happy,” Valenzuela said. “I feel like I’ve become better as an individual and as a leader. Me, a young person at the age of 16, was able to embark on this long road, was able to make change with her team and by herself, as well. And that legacy hopefully inspires others to do the same.”

If you enjoyed this article, check out more of In The Know’s Next Gen series here.

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