By Ellen Spitaleri
“We view the internet like electricity and Free Geek provides the light bulbs,” said Adelle Pomeroy, the digital inclusion manager at Free Geek, a nonprofit community organization that sustainably reuses technology, enables digital access and provides education that empowers people to realize their potential.
Pomeroy said those words back in late February before anyone had even heard of COVID-19, but now students are going to need those light bulbs more than ever.
Following guidance from health officials and Gov. Kate Brown, academic instruction in Portland Public Schools (PPS) will be online from the first day of school, September 2, through at least November 5.
Now, even though the Free Geek site at 1731 SE 10th Ave. is currently closed, the organization is gearing up to help students facing online school.
One of the programs they offer is Plug Into Portland, which serves students in grades K-12 in Clackamas, Multnomah and Washington counties.
Before COVID-19, Plug Into Portland offered free computers to K-12 students who volunteered in their communities. Now, since the volunteer requirement is now no longer safe for students, it has been waived completely.
Students who need computers can send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org and explain their situation.
“We will follow up with them to ask a couple of questions about internet connectivity and then set up a contactless or socially distant pickup for the student and their family at Free Geek,” Pomeroy said.
“The mission of our Plug Into Portland program has become more critical than ever,” said Ingrid Dos Santos, digital inclusion associate.
She added, “In the time since the pandemic reached our communities, Free Geek has been working to reduce the number of barriers in the way of folks being able to access technology from us.”
Prior to pandemic restrictions, students without computers at home could use their school computers and/or computer libraries around their communities in order to complete their schoolwork. Now they’ve been limited to their school’s capacity to provide borrowed devices in order to keep up with their education, Dos Santos said.
“In a world where the digital divide and homework gaps were already creating an unfair disadvantage, COVID-19 has deepened the divide and worsened the gap. Our work has never been more crucial,” she added.
“Anyone with an identified need for a computer can get in touch with us and we have been granting devices to adult community members on a case-by-case basis,” Dos Santos said.
With social distancing and safety measures in place, in-person classes are no longer held at Free Geek, but the organization is working to bring free classes online.
“We will work with folks who want to attend our classes but don’t have a computer, so that they can also participate. We hope to roll out free webinars starting in the fall,” Pomeroy said.
Before COVID-19, statistics showed that “70 percent of teachers assign homework that requires a digital device,” according to Dos Santos. Now lack of computer access will be even more of a barrier for students taking all classes online.
Getting a free computer “has a direct impact on people’s lives,” said Dos Santos, adding that she has heard stories about students trying to write essays on their phones.
Pomeroy pointed out that the digital inclusion program depends on monetary contributions and donations of computers by individuals or corporations.
“We rely on our community to power our programs and bridge the digital divide,” she said, noting that COVID-19 safety protocols are in place for donations.
Free Geek is now accepting contactless donations in the parking lot on the northeast side of the building, Wednesday through Saturday only, from 11 am-1 pm and from 3-5 pm.
Pomeroy noted all donated devices are wiped to National Institute of Standards and Technology specifications. She added that technology and access are now health and safety issues.
“If you don’t have a device or understand how to use one, you will have put yourself at much greater health risk because everything, including even grocery shopping and doctors’ appointments, is online,” she said.
Photo of Adelle Pomeroy and Ingrid Dos Santos by Ellen Spitaleri