Thousands of Philly students to get free internet

PHOTO: Melissa Mitman

City leaders outlined a $17.1 million plan Thursday to provide 35,000 households with free internet, with the goal of allowing all Philadelphia students to participate in virtual classes.

Families will be set up with broadband connections through Comcast, and mobile hotspots will be given to students who are homeless or transient, officials said.

Advocates have expressed concerns about equal access to education since schools turned to remote learning in March. The issue has become a top priority since the School District of Philadelphia decided last month to begin the year virtually.

The new initiative was presented as a solution, with Mayor Jim Kenney calling it a “transformational moment” in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Dubbed “PHLConnectEd,” it will be open to families with children who attend any school, public or otherwise, in Philadelphia. The program is expected to benefit about 50,000 students.

Schools will be directly reaching out to families who have already been identified as not having internet service or only having mobile access. Parents and caregivers will receive a code that they can provide to Comcast, which will connect them through its Internal Essentials program.

The T-Mobile wireless hotspots will be distributed in a separate process, possibly through individual schools, officials said.

Schools continue trying to identify families who need access. Officials said the district is in the process of calling every family to check if they need to be connected.

The city is also assembling an information technology team who will talk to families about how to install and use equipment. A hotline will be set up for those who have questions.

“If this is their first time connected or they’re new to being connected to the internet, we’re going to need digital navigators for those families to learn what it means to be connected,” said Otis Hackney, Kenney’s education chief.

Kenney said the program will be integral to closing the virtual gap in a city where the poverty rate hovers around 25 percent.

“The digital divide was an issue before the pandemic, but it has been made clear that we can no longer standby and allow this inequity to continue,” he said.

Reactions flooded in, with many local leaders praising the initiative.

Council President Darrell Clarke said the coronavirus has “made it clear that internet access is not a luxury, it’s a basic necessity.” Philadelphia Federation of Teachers President Jerry Jordan called the program “a welcome step forward.”

Public schools in Philadelphia will be 100 percent digital through at least November, and district officials said about 1,800 families have contacted administrators about connecting to the internet.

“We knew there was a significant number of students without reliable access to the internet, so we were clear in saying this was an issue the district could not address alone,” Superintendent William Hite said.

Last week, activists protested outside the Comcast Center, demanding the telecommunications giant do more to help struggling families.

Behind the scenes, company representatives had been meeting with city officials to work out the plan. Comcast is also chipping in $7 million to help fund the program.

“Comcast, in particular, has come to the table and been working on this project with us for months,” Kenney said.

Mark Wheeler, the city’s chief information officer, said officials arrived at 35,000 households based on school surveys and census data. The $17.1 million budget is crafted around that total, he added.

The city is using $2 million in funding from the federal CARES Act, and philanthropic organizations have donated just over $11 million. Officials said the remainder would be shared among schools.

Wheeler painted the initiative as part of a longer-term strategy to permanently connect all residents. Adults who live in households participating in the program will also be able to log on for telehealth visits, job applications and other important tasks, he noted.

“This is a household-level solution with the kids as the focus first,” he added.

Hackney and Wheeler said officials had to work under a time constraint with classes beginning in late August and early September.

“We did not know until fairly recently what the school district would do,” Wheeler said. “Many of us did not know where the state of the pandemic was going to be. There were a lot of hopes about being in school in the fall.”

Families will have service for 12-month periods, not just during the school year. It’s designed to be funded for two years.

School district parents who want more information can call 215-400-5300. Interested donors to the program should visit www.mayorsfundphila.org/initiatives/phlconnected.

Parents and caregivers are also urged to make sure their school has the correct contact information for them.

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