At the beginning of the 2020-2021 school year, the City of Philadelphia launched tech access initiative PHLConnectED to get K-12 students signed up for free internet access at home, where remote learning had been taking place since schools closed due to COVID-19 in March. The two-year plan formed alongside corporate and philanthropic partners came with a $17 million budget and a goal to connect up to 35,000 low-income families.
As of last week, the initiative had reached 11,000 families.
Labonno Islam, digital engagement and communications specialist for the Office of Innovation and Technology, told Technical.ly that these figures and progress so far underscore the work city officials are doing to help bridge the digital divide in marginalized communities.
“We’re really trying to drive the message home that any student who needs internet can now get it,” she said. “The important thing is we have the funding and program in place to meet the needs of our students and get more of them connected. We are working hard to identify families who need access through targeted outreach — which includes on-the-ground outreach work in specific neighborhoods and ensuring that local community groups, businesses, and churches have flyers and information about PHLConnectED so that they can help reach families as well.”
The 11,000 households are comprised of more than 2,500 students who received MiFi devices (which create wireless broadband hotspots) from the School District of Philadelphia over the spring and summer; upwards of 7,300 families that applied for a free 60 days of Comcast’s Internet Essentials service; and 1,000 families connected by PHLConnectED to either Internet Essentials or MiFi devices.
City officials estimated in early October that 18,000 households still lacked internet access, but Islam said that number “was never precise.” The number was pulled from preliminary data from Comcast and Verizon, Philadelphia’s two main internet service providers. The numbers indicate that while individuals did not subscribe to either of the services, they may have been connected with other local internet providers, or not want internet services, she said. The school district has also sent hundreds of thousands of texts and emails to families in multiple languages to raise awareness about the program.
Looking to get connected or know someone who is? Call social services hotline 211 and press 1 with questions about eligibility.Michael Butler is a 2020-2022 corps member for Report for America, an initiative of The Groundtruth Project that pairs young journalists with local newsrooms. This position is supported by the Lenfest Institute for Journalism.
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