Visitors to libraries across the country are being greeted with signs declaring, “Library Closed,” in an attempt to contain the spread of the novel coronavirus. But increasingly, those words are followed by the ones seen outside Schlow Centre Region Library in State College, Pennsylvania: “Park for Free Wi-Fi.”
As the Covid-19 outbreak pushes almost all daily functions online, libraries, schools, and Internet service providers (ISPs) are finding themselves on the front lines of responding to their communities’ connectivity needs — especially those of students. Nationwide, these broadband first responders are working rapidly to open and deploy public Wi-Fi hotspots that families can access from the safety of their parked cars.
Even before the current crisis, the “homework gap” meant that 7 million school-age children did not have Internet access at home, hampering their ability to get an education. Now, the digital divide is being thrown into even starker relief, as students struggle to access online classes and school districts grapple with equity concerns.
Though it isn’t a permanent solution to the homework gap, these community institutions and providers hope that the emergency Wi-Fi access will give students on the wrong side of the divide a chance to learn while schools are shut down.
Students Trade Desks for Cars
Earlier this week, the American Library Association (ALA) recommended that libraries leave their Wi-Fi turned on and accessible while facilities are closed. In a press release, ALA stated:
America’s 16,557 public library locations are essential nodes in our nation’s digital safety net . . . The COVID-19 Pandemic is disrupting this safety net and spotlighting the persistent digital gaps for more than 20 million people in the United States, including millions of school-age children and college students...