Less than a week before school is to begin virtually, as many as 18,000 Philadelphia School District students may still need internet access, Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. said Thursday.
“We’re estimating somewhere between 15,000 and 18,000 individuals will need to be connected,” Hite said. “Those are district families that would need some sort of connection.” Total enrollment is about 125,000.
The district is preparing to start the school year with an all-virtual program Wednesday. The city earlier this month announced that free internet access would be available to 35,000 low-income families with students enrolled in Philadelphia schools. That includes charter schools — which enroll about 70,000 — and private schools.
The $17 million plan, a partnership between the city and Comcast Corp., provides free broadband access for some households via Comcast’s Internet Essentials program, and wireless hot spots to others.
Hite said Thursday that the district estimates that about 1,900 students may need hot spots. A “couple hundred” families have picked up the necessary devices, he said, adding that the district has 6,000 available.
Asked how many homes had been wired for free internet through the PHLConnectED program since it was announced Aug. 6, district spokesperson Monica Lewis said she did not know. Comcast officials also said they did not have a figure, but said the average application time for families with children to receive internet was four days, and that families who call a new hotline — by dialing 211 — can still be connected by Wednesday.
“Our goal was to make sure that all students have access starting on Day One,” Hite said during his weekly briefing. He said some people have been approved for an internet connection but the service still needs to be installed.
Hot spots are “providing temporary internet access while that is happening,” he said. The district is also providing mobile hot spots to students who live in shelters or do not have the ability to have a wired connection, he said.
Lewis said later Thursday that school leaders knew that connecting students to internet “wasn’t going to take place overnight” when they launched the program.
“Will every student have internet access by Sept. 2? Absolutely not. Did we know that going into this? Yes we did,” she said. The district is working with the city and internet providers to help students get access as soon as possible, she said.
The city this week announced the 211 hotline run by the United Way to help connect families to the internet. Families of K-12 students in Philadelphia without internet access or with access only through their phones can call 24 hours a day and speak to a representative who will help determine their options for internet access. The hotline is available in more than 150 languages.
Deana Gamble, a spokesperson for Mayor Jim Kenney, said the mayor “obviously wants all students connected for virtual learning on the first day of school, but he also appreciates the great challenges involved in closing the digital divide.”
The city “is working very aggressively with the district, other schools, Comcast, T-Mobile, elected officials, community-based organizations, and other stakeholders to inform families about this incredible resource and help them enroll as quickly as possible,” Gamble said.
Philadelphia saw a drop in student participation after the district moved to virtual learning in the spring, with thousands of students not logging on.
Hite said the full picture of how many students lack internet access may not be clear until school begins next week, including whether those who participated in the spring will still do so this fall.
“If individuals may have been logging on back in the spring and they’re not logging on now, you have to find out why that’s occurring,” he said.