With the onset of the coronavirus (COVID) pandemic, the District’s digital divide has been further accentuated, highlighting the disparity between those who have access to the tools and training necessary to work from home, and those without access to technology. One organization working to address this divide is Byte Back, a longstanding District-based nonprofit that places tech within reach. Through inclusive tech training and educational programs, Byte Back creates pathways to living-wage careers for District (and Baltimore) residents. We spoke with Byte Back’s Communications Director, Yvette Scorse, on how the organization and its students are adapting to learning in a virtual environment and what’s next for them.
Washington DC Economic Partnership: How has Byte Back been adapting to the stay at home order and the economic impact of the pandemic?
Yvette Scorse: We’ve been operating in the District since 1997, and our entire history as an organization has focused on in-person, hands-on tech training. Transitioning our entire staff of 20 to work remotely as well as our classes, which are now conducted through Zoom, was a first for us. However, I think the overall smoothness of our transition is really in part because of the nature of our work—we have been adaptive and well-equipped from the beginning to quickly take all our operations and programming online.
Our COO and leadership at large have worked tirelessly to create adaptive policies and processes that allow us to continue our work uninterrupted. Having a set vision for what the organization intends to achieve, and robust goal reporting helps us stay flexible with our methods and how we get things done—it has certainly been a learning experience.
In addition to applying and receiving a Paycheck Protection Program loan from the Small Business Administration, something we’ve focused on as an organization is how we can shave our expense and redirect funds internally to ensure that our students have access to laptops, software, and home internet access to succeed. Our program team has also worked continuously these months to adapt and optimize the curriculum for a virtual setting.
Byte Back students receive individual attention from registration to graduation.
WDCEP: Have you noticed a difference in how students are engaging with your classes?
YS: Normally, about 500 students come through our doors each year. Byte Back supports a wide range of people at different skill levels, and typically a student’s digital literacy evolves through their classes and access to our in-house resources. At the beginning of the District’s stay at home order, we faced a new operational challenge as nearly one–third of Byte Back students don’t have access to a home computer or internet connection. We were able to redirect funds and raise money for a new Virtual Training Fund to purchase and loan out laptop computers, as well as provide some with hotspots. In Zoom classrooms, Byte Back students are showing their resilience, determination, and openness to learning and adapting. Despite the many roadblocks this pandemic presents, our students have demonstrated an unwavering spirit of determination to keep learning and move into living-wage careers.
Despite classes moving to a remote setting, Byte Back students persevere!
WDCEP: What do you anticipate changing in the way Byte Back navigates a post-COVID world?
YS: Over the past two decades, we have seen a clear shift in the types of employable skills demanded as the tech sector grows. As more and more analog jobs are being automated or posing precarity (and exacerbated by the pandemic), there lies a specific need for workforce training programs that give people a pathway to successfully land careers in the growing digital economy. COVID has changed the way most people work, and our students are gaining the exact skills they need to be ready for a digital office space and be able to work from home. We also anticipate an increased demand for workforce retraining and for wider recognition that the digital divide has grown starker through the pandemic and that it’s time for increased action that supports digital equity in the District.
We’re excited to return to our beautiful in-person classrooms in NoMa at some point, but I think in a post-COVID world we will probably also continue to incorporate virtual training, tutoring, and career support for students.
Byte Back instructors are passionate about helping their students succeed!
WDCEP: What has been a guiding light that is helping you and your team to keep moving forward?
YS: The Byte Back team is made up of passionate individuals who are really driven to fulfill the organization’s mission, so despite the setbacks of the pandemic and the occasional Zoom fatigue, the overall energy to keep moving forward and serve our communities hasn’t dropped. If anything, we are inspired to be nimble, iterate, and try out different tactics with the new set of limitations. Our CEO, Elizabeth Lindsey, puts her full trust in us as a team. She actively expects us to be innovative and flexible to keep serving people the best that we can through our mission, and that truly has been a guiding light!