The City of Philadelphia and the School District of Philadelphia (SDP) has spent the last few months grappling with how students will complete the beginning of the 2020-2021 school year totally online, as announced last week. Today, they announced a plan to extend internet service and devices to 35,000 K-12 student households.
The plan, called PHLConnectED, is the first step in the City’s larger strategy to address digital access and inequity, which has been exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic.
After initially introducing a “hybrid” plan for learning — with a mix of in-person and online instruction for K-12 students — last week Superintendent Dr. William Hite said that instead, all students will spend at least the first marking period receiving fully online instruction. But this plan highlighted the issues on view when schools first went online in the spring: Many households don’t have the proper internet connectivity or devices for each student to learn online all day.
The PHLConnectED plan intends to provide eligible K-12 households with free wired, reliable internet from Comcast’s Internet Essentials program, or a high-speed mobile hotspot for families who are housing insecure, the City outlined on Thursday.
“We knew there was a significant number of students without access to reliable internet,” Hite said at a press conference Thursday. “So we were clear in saying this was an issue that the district cannot address alone.”
The budget for this two-year, $17.1 million project is made possible by support from the Comcast Foundation, William Penn Foundation, Lenfest Foundation, Philadelphia School Partnership and Neubauer Foundation, CIO Mark Wheeler said Thursday.
The philanthropic partners are contributing $11 million, while the City is contributing $2 million from its received CARES Act funding, and the remaining costs will be shared among the school district, charter, independent and private schools, as well as other donations, the City said.
SDP said it recently distributed more than 128,000 devices to students who didn’t have them in their homes, and will continue to work with schools and families to ensure they have the necessary resources to access learning.
Early on in the pandemic, Comcast opened up its Internet Essentials program, which usually costs $10 a month, for free for two months for any qualified household without internet access. The broadcast giant recently extended that two-months-free offer through the end of the year, but protesters took to the outside of Comcast’s Center City tower Monday calling for more widespread access.
Protesters had four demands: that Comcast open its residential hotspots in addition to public hotspots that are already open; that Comcast increase speeds for Internet Essentials services so that families with multiple students will have usable internet; that Internet Essentials services can be free for the duration of the pandemic and not just the first two months of service; and that Comcast divest funding from the police and reroute it to community projects.
The plan rolled out today made clear that Internet Essentials is a key aspect of the school district’s connectivity plan. Comcast was picked as the internet provider for the plan “because of their ability to connect the most number of homes in Philadelphia with reliable broadband service at affordable rates,” a spokesperson for the City’s Office of Innovation & Technology told Technical.ly.
A Comcast spokesperson said there’s funding in place to keep the programing going for the full two years mentioned in the City’s plan, and that work on addressing the digital divide has been a focus for the corporation since early in the pandemic. Even if the pandemic eases and kids can return to school next year, this extension of Internet Essentials is meant to be a longer-term fix for Philadelphia residents, the spokesperson said.
There will no out-of-pocket expenses or installation costs for families that participate in this program, and their eligibility will be reviewed on an annual basis.
A hotspot will be available for families facing housing insecurity, and a bulk purchase will be made for those devices from T-Mobile, Wheeler said during the press conference Thursday. OIT is working on finalizing that contract, the office’s spokesperson said.
The City used census data and information from the school district to identify that there are about 35,000 households that need access, Wheeler said, and the numbers may change as the City and District learn more. Currently, schools will reach out to families to assess their needs, as will the City. Eligible families will receive a code that they can use to contact a hotline that will navigate them through the process of signing up for service.
The City will hire a coordinating agent working on the relationship between the broadcast partners, the City, SDP and families. Services like digital navigation on how to use the devices and stay connected to internet will fall under this role. (The Digital Literacy Alliance has already funded a few similar roles through local nonprofits.)
Councilmember Mark Squilla said Thursday that he and the rest of Philadelphia City Council recognize that it’s a heavy lift to get all students online, and that there are still issues like ensuring all students have safe virtual learning spaces for kids who aren’t at home — and solutions will adapt as needed.
More information about the plan is expected to go out to the public and school families in the coming weeks.
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