Together through technology

— Created May 6, 2020 by Kathy Reed

By Kacie Jo Voeller

With Governor Jay Inslee’s “Stay Home, Stay Healthy” order extending until May 31 throughout Washington state, many Whidbey Islanders continue to rely on technology for everyday functions from remote work to reaching out to family and friends. Maintaining connectivity and the work of internet companies has been a key piece of retaining the ability to sustain a “new normal” as activity is limited in an effort to fight the spread of COVID-19. 

Dr. Mick Donahue, a psychology professor and retired vice president of Skagit Valley College’s Whidbey Island Campus, said connectivity is key for supporting normalcy and even mental health.

“It is imperative for most of us, if not all of us, to connect and use technology during this time,” he said. “It is the way we can continue, to some degree, our ‘normal’ life. Can you imagine if we did not have technology at this time — what the ramifications would be?”

            Donahue said while there are possible downfalls of being heavily reliant on technology in terms of mental health, with the unprecedented current situation, the benefits of being able to remain connected virtually are undeniable.

“In regard to mental health, I think there are many ramifications of being so dependent on technology, which has been well documented in the press — isolation, loneliness, increased stress and high anxiety — however, I think all of those are well worth the trade off of having the ability to connect via technology,” he said.

Donahue said for those without the ability to connect or with limited ability to access the internet, it could create significant challenges.  

            “Not having access or limited access is a very big problem — you can see this very clearly with school children who are not connected with their teachers or school — some of this is lack of access and some of this is trying to homeschool while trying to work, etc.,” he said. “Many K-12 students are not engaged, based on what I have seen via homeschooling my own granddaughter.”

Donna Hilty, chief operating officer of Whidbey Telecom, said keeping people connected has been the key goal for the company. While half of the company’s employees who are able to do so work from home, many of its employees continue to work in the field to ensure optimum service. 

“As an essential service, the other half of our employees are out there on a daily basis making sure that the internet and the lines are staying robust and connected and getting people connected as much as we can,” she said.

Hilty said meeting the needs of telehealth workers providing nursing and other services has been one of the chief goals of the internet services company.

“Right off the bat, we knew we needed to prioritize some of the incoming demands and we put the telehealth workers first,” she said. “If anyone called us and said, ‘I am now working from home and I am part of the telehealth industry,’ we made sure that the services to them got streamlined.”

Hilty said another main focus of the company has been supporting education, and Whidbey Telecom continues to partner with Readiness to Learn (RTL), a local nonprofit partnering with schools, communities and families. Through the partnership, the company works to provide service and upgraded speeds to families in need.

“It (RTL) is part of the affiliation with South Whidbey Schools to make sure that, working through RTL, any of the students that need better speeds or connectivity that they cannot necessarily afford normally, we are making sure they get that so they do not slide back in school,” she said.

            In addition to providing internet and other services, Hilty said Whidbey Telecom has broadened its community support to meet the different needs presented during the pandemic.

“We are doing everything we can to make sure that this stretch of time goes as smoothly and as safely as it can for our community and we are refocusing some of our philanthropy as well,” she said. “We are seeing needs that are not technology-driven, but things like keeping the food banks going. We are kind of converting our other philanthropy to focusing on doing those things that are really close in the community to make sure that we all get through this in the end as safely and healthily as we can.”
            Hilty said there has been a 40 percent increase in usage, and the company has also seen an uptick in service orders and installations. Hilty said Whidbey Telecom has been adjusting to meet increased demands and continue to provide service as needed.

            “We have had to work some overtime,” she said. “We have actually hired during this time, I think we have brought in four or five employees, and we have had some folks return to us who had gone on to other careers in construction and things and they got laid off and we were able to put them right back to work during this period of lay off for them. So we have been quite busy.”

            Hilty said she feels through technology, families, friends and the community at large can stay linked, at least virtually.

“I think that it is really quite fortunate that we have the connectivity that is available to us through social media and the internet because this would be really isolating if we did not have that ability,” she said. “I know that families are using the Zoom app and those similar types of apps just to have connections, to have a meal together or a cocktail hour where you can see the other person and those can turn out to be quite fun, but they are also good for your mental health.”

Whidbey Weekly did reach out to other internet service providers on Whidbey Island, but did not hear back by the publication deadline.