The new school year is beginning, or has already begun, in many places in the US. The city of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania is opening 100 percent remotely this fall. This presents challenges but also great opportunities.
Remote learning only works if all students are reliably connected to the internet. But there is a great digital divide between people who have access and those who don’t. Now the city has prioritized bridging the gap.
Philadelphia launched an initiative – PHLConnectED – to provide free internet access to 35,000 low-income families that do not currently have connections according to The Philadelphia Inquirer. The plan that carries a $17 million price tag will be paid for with a mix of funding from philanthropic organizations, businesses, schools, and from the local CARES Act funding.
The households of the k-12 students will receive high-speed internet from Comcast’s Internet Essentials program or high-speed mobile hotspots according to a press release from the city. This initiative will provide two years of service without any installation fees or out-of-pocket payments whatsoever.
Of course, students will also need a device like a laptop or tablet too. The Philadelphia school district just provided 128,000 internet ready devices to students who needed them and the school district will work with families to ensure that they have the skills and training to use them.
The city said that the program prioritizes families with the greatest needs and will focus on connecting families that have no access or only mobile phone access, as well as those who are homeless. Eligible families were determined by data provided by the school district, the charter schools office, and internet providers.
The city stressed that digital planning was going to be a big part of its future when it released a technology plan in October 2019, according to StateScoop. But who knew how quickly it would have to be implemented? When schools went remote due to the pandemic, the inequality between students who had access to the internet and computers or tablets and those who didn’t became very clear.
That’s when they started planning for the next school year. “We want to pull from our existing toolkit,” Philadelphia’s Smart City director Emily Yates told StateScoop. “Going forward with what we know and elaborating on that probably has more of a valid response to the situation that we’re in, versus trying something we’re completely unsure of.”
PHLConnectED is just the first step in a three-phase digital equality program for the city. The plan calls for reimagining public technology access services so that all Philadelphia residents can take advantage of digital services like telehealth, applying for public benefits, applying for jobs, and more. Bridging the digital divide will benefit all of the city by improving the quality of life for its inhabitants.