SALT LAKE CITY — Among the hardships Utahns are experiencing during the COVID-19 pandemic, a lack of internet access or computer ownership can easily be lost in the shuffle.
And in Salt Lake City, where all K-12 schools will be fully online at the beginning of the 2020-21 school year, it is more important than ever that residents and families be able to work online.
Recognizing this, three organizations in Salt Lake City have teamed up to create Rose Park Connect, a new program being tested on the city’s west side that is intended to provide people with access to the internet, computers and even technological help during the month of August and perhaps beyond.
The program kicked off Monday and is the product of collaborative efforts between Salt Lake City, Salt Lake County and the Salt Lake Rose Park Stake of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
“Digital equity is a real issue that the pandemic has magnified and made more complex, but now, more than ever, people need access to information that can help them and keep them safe,” said Mayor Erin Mendenhall in a press release. “We want our residents to have a place where they can get online to apply for a job, find a COVID-19 testing site, do their homework, fill out their 2020 Census, and more.”
After identifying the need, Mendenhall reached out to the Presiding Bishopric of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to see if there was any aid local stakes could render. When Carlton Christensen, the Salt Lake Rose Park stake president, was in turn asked if there was anything his stake could do, planning for the directive began in earnest.
During the pandemic, church buildings and church equipment haven’t seen nearly as much use.
“You have a great asset in the heart of the community that has a lot of good infrastructure in it,” Christensen said. “And it pretty much has gone unused for a number of months, and certainly during the week it is very much going unused.”
Sessions are currently hosted in a common room inside the local stake center. Church-owned Chromebooks are provided for people who may not have digital devices of their own.
Christensen said the stake is ready to make accommodations if a large number of people show up, including moving the sessions to a larger room, using more volunteers and opening additional time slots.
“We’d love for it to be busy,” he said. “We’d love to add more times. We started with the times we did just to put our foot in the door, but we’ve always, from the beginning, said if those fill up, we’ll add more times.”
So far, that has not been necessary. On Thursday, the fourth day of the program, just two people came in.
However, both the volunteers and Christensen are hopeful that will change in the coming weeks as word about the initiative spreads. And even if it doesn’t and more people don’t come, numbers alone don’t necessarily constitute success to them.
“We talked about it yesterday; we would have come here for one person,” said Clarrisa Bartholomew, a church volunteer.
K-12 students are a major point of concern for both the city and the church, according to Christensen, as Salt Lake City schools will be the only ones in Utah to begin the year fully online.
“The ripple effect decades from now is going to be very apparent, and I’m worried about those kids being successful, whether they are in or outside of the church,” Christensen said. “But the church membership is not going to be an exemption. We’ve got to figure out how we can help them be successful.”
“In my mind, success would be constituted two fold: that one person got helped — and our gospel teaches us it is really about the one. The second part of it is that the community knew that we cared, and that we did what we could by opening up our doors, and if there is another way for us to help, that’s the way we’ll help.”
Salt Lake County is also represented at the sessions, with census workers showing up and encouraging people to fill out the census while they have access to technology and help. Another goal is to help kids who may not otherwise have access to the internet register for school.
Salt Lake City does much of the advertising for the project, as well as providing personal protective equipment for people who may not have masks. And both the people seeking help and the volunteers are required to adhere to health guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Rose Park Connect will continue until the end of August, at which time program organizers will evaluate the initiative and its impact and then move forward in the way that best helps people.
Sessions are held at the church building at 760 N. 1200 West on Mondays and Wednesdays from 8 a.m. to 11 a.m., and Tuesdays and Thursdays from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m.