Traveling through the five counties that encompass the 46th State Senate District and listening to people express the issues that are most important to them has been an incredible experience. But with the outbreak of COVID-19, regular life and the work we were doing to connect with voters has come to a screeching halt.
Like all of us, I’m eager to get back to my daily routine. I’m eager to get back to talking with you and meeting our neighbors, discussing how we can make life better for those of us who live in Upstate NY.
But in these uncertain times, we are fortunate to live in New York State. Our leadership, from the Governor to County Executives and local governments, have been doing an amazing job of managing this crisis, making hard decisions and acting swiftly to halt the spread of this virus. Vital State resources are quickly and appropriately being applied to urgent, life-saving medical services and businesses are changing models to fill in the gaps where possible. And the New Yorkers fighting on the front lines - our healthcare workers, first responders, corrections officers, retail and restaurant workers, truck drivers and delivery personnel - have been going above and beyond.
However, this moment in our history has, more clearly than ever, shown the cracks in our fraying system and exposed how a crisis will exacerbate our fundamental problems.
With shelter in place initiatives, we’re seeing in real time just how broken our system is for rural New Yorkers. In our modern world, access to the internet is nearly universal, and yet, here in Upstate NY, many of our communities still don’t have it. How do New York State residents not have access to something that is otherwise considered a global utility?
It’s no wonder our rural communities feel like they are falling behind.
That is why New York State must put forth an immediate plan to accelerate efforts already in place to close the digital divide and ensure that upstate rural residents gain access to broadband during this crisis and permanently thereafter. As all residents are told to stay home, the lack of reliable internet negatively affects our most vulnerable populations, specifically our children home from school and our seniors, many now shut off from the world.
The COVID-19 pandemic has elevated an urgent need for major investment in broadband for the expansion of vital services like telemedicine. Our seniors, many living alone in highly rural areas without internet connections, are left to fend for themselves as healthcare providers advise people to communicate medical issues via online forums and video conferences. When our medical facilities and personnel are all hands on deck for COVID-19 patients, our seniors can’t access the care they need when they need it. We’ve effectively abandoned them at their most vulnerable.
Additionally, the unprecedented school and library closures have put a serious burden on our working families. Even while school districts hand out laptops and teachers and parents continue their best efforts to creatively educate students, the fact remains that success is dependent upon a broadband connection for research, homework, and student-to-teacher collaboration. And that fact means that rural students will quickly fall behind classmates who are fortunate enough to have a broadband connection.
If we don’t take the necessary steps to protect and nurture our children’s education during this extraordinary time, we will be left with long term consequences for their future and the future of Upstate New York.
And while elected officials like Federal Representatives Antonio Delgado (NY-19) and Paul Tonko (NY-20) and State Legislators Jen Metzger and Angelo Santabarbara, among others, continue to advance the fight, there are still thousands of families who remain shut out of the information network and are living without the safety of digital communication.
Access to the internet in 2020 needs to be considered a public utility, not a luxury. New York State must lead this effort and work with Washington, D.C. and all providers to make this a reality for all residents.
Michelle Hinchey is the Democratic Candidate for New York’s 46th State Senate District.