Chicago to connect 100K students to internet in $50M effort

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Dive Brief:

  • Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot on Thursday announced a plan to expand high-speed internet access to 100,000 students in low-income households at a cost of $50 million over four years, paid for in part with federal coronavirus response funds and donations, Chalkbeat reports
  • The city is working in collaboration on the effort with service providers Comcast and RCN, along with advocacy groups like Kids First Chicago. The first two years of the program will be funded by $5 million in federal coronavirus funds and philanthropic donations that include $750,000 from President Barack Obama and Michelle Obama, and the cost of the third and fourth years will be covered by Chicago Public Schools.
  • This spring, the district distributed 100,000 computers in addition to providing mobile hotspots to homeless students, though efforts mostly focused around directing families to a 60-day free internet offer from Comcast. Many students still fell through the cracks, with an April study from Kids First and the Metropolitan Planning Council finding one in five students lacked home internet, especially in Black and Hispanic communities.

Dive Insight:

With the ongoing threat of the coronavirus pandemic, the prospect of continued distance or hybrid learning looms in the new school year. Applying lessons learned from the hasty transition in the spring, states and districts continue working to connect all students.

The transition highlighted the true scope of a problem long-preceding COVID-19: the homework gap, wherein students lacking home internet access have struggled to complete online homework assignments or upload reports and projects through school portals as class materials have gone increasingly digital.

Similar to Chicago, an agreement between the Los Angeles Unified School District and Verizon earlier this year expanded connectivity to 125,000 low-income students in the Los Angeles area. In April, Verizon further committed to providing a discounted rate for unlimited internet connectivity to 250,000 students.

In March, the Federal Communications Commission also temporarily waived E-rate gift rules, allowing schools and districts participating in the service discount program to receive free broadband, networking gear, hotspots and other services as school closures forced students and teachers into distance learning. And Future Ready Schools, an initiative of the Alliance for Excellent Education, urged educators to sign a letter petitioning FCC Chairman Ajit Pai to expand E-rate’s coverage to include home internet so students can keep learning while schools are closed.

Not only is this a problem for students in low-income families, but it also impacts those living in rural areas where robust local internet infrastructure doesn’t yet exist.

Chester County Schools in southwest Tennessee, for example, has many students living in areas without high-speed internet infrastructure. Another district in Tennessee, Polk County School District, has students who live in remote, mountainous, heavily forested areas without nearby cellular towers or internet connection.

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