Philly launches initiative to help students gain internet access

    George W Nebinger Public School (Philadelphia Tribune photo)

    By The Philadelphia Tribune

    PHILADELPHIA — City officials have launched a new collaboration to connect up to 35,000 low-income K-12 student households with internet service and devices.

    The PHLConnectED program will also provide digital skills training and tech support for families, as schools move to virtual learning in the upcoming academic year as a result of the global COVID-19 pandemic.

    “Our goal is to identify and implement affordable, simple and reliable digital access solutions for all our residents,” Mayor Jim Kenney said in a statement released by his office.

    “By focusing on K-12 student households now, we can have an immediate impact in bridging the digital divide, especially to support distance learning for the upcoming school year.”

    PHLConnectED is part of the first stage of the City’s larger digital equity initiative that supports internet adoption and digital literacy skills development for all Philadelphia residents.

    Pennsylvania got $104M from the feds to expand internet access to students. Much of it is still unspent 

    Three core components of the program include free wired, high-speed, reliable broadband internet to the home from Comcast’s Internet Essentials program, or a high-speed mobile hotspot for families who are housing-insecure or need a portable option; distribution of chromebooks, computers or tablets and free skills training and tech support for students, families and teachers to ensure that they stay connected and take advantage of all the Internet has to offer.

    The program is supported by a broad coalition of business, nonprofit, philanthropic and civic leaders. Partners include the School District of Philadelphia, select charter schools, Comcast Corporation, Lenfest Foundation, Neubauer Family Foundation, Philadelphia School Partnership, William Penn Foundation and Philadelphia Housing Authority.

    Officials said eligibility for this program is designed to ensure that families with the greatest need for internet service are prioritized. The first phase is focused on connecting K-12 student households who currently do not have any internet access or who only have mobile phone access and/or who are homeless or housing insecure. These student households are being identified by the Philadelphia School District, the Charter Schools Office, other schools, and internet service providers.

    “The digital divide is an inequity that presents a significant barrier to our goal of helping all students in every neighborhood reach their full academic potential,” said School District Superintendent William R. Hite Jr.

    “So, we at the School District of Philadelphia are pleased to see the City, legislators and business leaders come together to launch PHLConnectED, a program we believe can close the divide and allow for all students to have the access they need, especially now as we prepare for 100 percent digital learning to start the 2020-2021 school year next month.”

    Jerry Jordan, president, Philadelphia Federation of Teachers said one of the biggest challenges school communities faced this spring was connectivity and that boils down to equity.

    “In a commonwealth that is fraught with educational inequity, it is incumbent upon all of us to be relentless in our pursuit of justice,” he said.

    “The commitment made today to ensure that our students have access to the internet should be commended, and is a welcome step forward. Our students will be depending on access this fall so that, in these trying times, they are able to connect with their educators and their peers while staying healthy at home.”

    Dalila Wilson-Scott, president of the Comcast NBCUniversal Foundation said for more than a decade Comcast has been dedicated to tackling the digital divide nationally and in Philadelphia, through its Internet Essentials program.

    “From the beginning of the pandemic, we have been working closely with the City of Philadelphia, the School District and others to help create the ‘PHLConnectED’ program to accelerate connecting thousands more K-12 students online,” she said.

    “A problem as vast and complex as this one also requires all of us to work together to ensure these students not only get connected but also stay engaged with distance learning throughout this academic year.”

    The program is going to cost $17.1 during the next two years. Philanthropic partners are contributing more than $11 million, the City is contributing $2 million from CARES Act funding, and the remaining costs will be shared among the School District, charter, independent mission, and private schools, as well as other donations.

    This story was first published by The Philadelphia Tribune, a publishing partner of the Pennsylvania Capital-Star.