School Library Leader Sees Opportunity in Intentionality

Virtual Conference: Bridging the Digital Equity Divide

Dr. Jennifer CannellThe COVID-19 pandemic didn’t create the digital equity divide in education, but it surely magnified it as schools and districts scrambled to make the switch to remote and hybrid instruction.

At the same time, the pandemic spurred innovative responses to meet the needs of remote learners, and to bridge divides for students, families and communities. 

Inequities persist, but opportunities and potential solutions abound, says Dr. Jen Cannell, whose Jan. 26 keynote address opened the Southern Westchester BOCES School Library System’s virtual conference.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has made it blatantly obvious that we have some problems within our communities,” Dr. Cannell told attendees of the kickoff session for the two-week program of workshops and presentations. “While I’m frustrated, I’m also wildly optimistic about what is on the horizon...We have options, and we’re going to make a difference and I think that it matters.”

 conference at a glance Her hour-long presentation, “Building with Intention,” focused extensively on identifying solutions to the established inequities that have been amplified during the pandemic and urged attendees to work together with intentionality to create systemic change. The conference runs through Feb. 4.

“We design our programs with intent. We advocate for our students with intent. And now we build with intent to minimize the inequities that we see with the digital divide,” she said.

Dr. Jen Cannell is an Assistant Professor and Director of the Graduate School Library Media Specialist Program at St. John Fisher College in her home town of Rochester. A former middle school librarian and School Library System Director, she is a past president of the New York Library Association and former Capital Region BOCES School Library System Director.

Her talk opened the SLS’s first virtual conference, reimagining a popular gathering for school librarians and other educators from the region and across the state. Instead of a single, daylong event, the event spans six days over two weeks, with morning and afternoon sessions tackling this important topic from numerous angles. 

Educators recognize the need to address gaps they see, Dr. Cannell said, but existing bridges are incomplete or ineffective. Meanwhile, the divide harms students. She cited statistics showing 215,948 students, or 8%, in New York Schools do not have access to an internet-ready device while 6% lack reliable internet service (which mirrors the national rate). Students in urban and rural districts are disproportionately affected, while age, income, education and race are also factors.

Responses have not been lacking. For instance, libraries in New York City closed but kept their WiFi on for 1.5 million New Yorkers. WiFi zones popped up, allowing students and teachers to work from vehicles. Some libraries deployed mobile hotspot buses. Such examples are praiseworthy, but Dr. Cannell noted that not all communities have been able to create such opportunities.

She breaks down the digital divide into three categories: Access (technology, broadband), Use (digital skills) and Quality of Use (knowledge to make use of skills and access to quality, unbiased information). 

All three divides have serious consequences. One is isolation from peers, community, and  information. Rural areas might come to mind, but this isolation is happening in urban centers too. “Somehow we have to figure this out because we don’t want people to be disconnected from one another. We don’t want them to be disconnected from information,” Dr. Cannell said.

Limiting access to information limits knowledge, she said.

“It’s scary to be thinking about especially considering that we do live in a democracy, considering that we are educators and considering that we do want civic participation from our students,” she said.

The divide also threatens to accentuate social differences. The inability of students to access information contributes to digital illiteracy, reduces future employment opportunities and keeps people from being able to move up the socioeconomic ladder. 

The final consequence is discrimination and inequity. “It’s not right. We all lose out by not being able to learn from each other, by not being able to collaborate with people unlike ourselves, by not being able to learn from people with ideas different from our own,” Dr. Cannell said.

There is good news, though. The December stimulus bill allocated $80 billion for broadband infrastructure and subsidies for home access. The state is proposing a similar internet access guarantee. Dr. Cannell cited reports of communities creating equity hubs to support working families. And the American Library Association lobbied the new administration and even declared broadband a universal right.

“For too long information, opportunities and resources have been constraints,” said Dr. Cannell. “They need to be the bridges, and school librarians, educators and committed individuals willing to invest in the future of our students. We are that bridge. Change may be slow but it’s really heading in the right direction.”

Learn more about the SWBOCES School LIbrary System’s Virtual Conference at its landing page at