As the pandemic forced tens of thousands of Philadelphia students into online-only education, Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. asked Comcast and other internet providers to open their WiFi networks so all students could learn through their laptops — but all refused, he said Wednesday.
Addressing City Council as it considers School District funding for next year, Hite said internet access remains a “critical infrastructure issue,” and if public schools require children to use the internet for educational purposes, that access should be free in the way that school meals are free to low-income families.
The School District has distributed more than 81,000 Chromebooks to students in an effort to keep them learning while schools are closed for face-to-face instruction. But just 57% of students are participating in some way, according to the most recent district data, and officials say a lack of wireless access is in part to blame.
“It becomes sort of futile to provide the Chromebooks if we’re not providing the internet access,” Councilmember Cindy Bass said. “We might as well give them a piece of paper and a pencil and sit them down at a table and tell them to figure it out.”
Comcast is offering two free months of its Internet Essentials, its broadband program for low-income customers, but some teachers, parents, and advocates said they have been unable to access it. Comcast also has said it won’t disconnect service or charge late fees if bills can’t be paid on time, and it has opened up its outdoor and small business hot spots. CEO Brian Roberts and his family also donated $5 million for the district to buy Chromebooks for its students.
The district was able to purchase 2,500 mobile hot spots for children who are unable to access free internet in other ways, but those are glitchy and expensive — roughly $180 annually, about the same as the cost of the Chromebooks themselves — and not a long-term solution, said Hite.
In response to a call from U.S. Senator Cory Booker (D., N.J.) and others to open up hot spots during the pandemic, Comcast officials have said that their networks were not engineered for broad public use.
A Comcast spokesperson declined to comment Wednesday.
The internet discussion came during a hearing on the district’s $3.4 billion budget for next year. Prior to the coronavirus outbreak, the school system was projecting a healthy fund balance; the economic turmoil caused by the pandemic changed that outlook to a $38 million deficit for fiscal 2021, with a $1 billion gap opening up over five years.
Chief financial officer Uri Monson said Wednesday that the projections are slightly less grim now because of the city’s proposed property-tax increase and the prospect of a partial city reopening, which could mean revenues from the liquor-by-the-drink tax and other sources will begin flowing to the district again. The state also said it would not seek a waiver to reduce aid to school districts.
The district is projecting a modest fund balance for the 2020-21 school year, though it is relying on no new costs associated with labor contracts. The school system’s two biggest unions, including the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, have deals expiring this summer.
Still, the district is bracing for an $800 million deficit by 2025.
“We’re looking ahead to what we know we’re going to have to do given our structural budget problem going forward," Monson said. Leaders hope to minimize cuts to classrooms, mindful of the doomsday budget problems of 2013, but said it might eventually have to consider reducing funding for things like family engagement, behavioral support coaches, recruitment, teacher training, and literacy support. It might also have to let vacancies in maintenance and cleaning positions go unfilled.
Hite and School Board President Joyce Wilkerson have made clear they hope answers to their budget problems will come from Harrisburg, which funds about 50% of Philadelphia schools’ budget.
Council President Darrell L. Clarke indicated city increases would be a hard sell.
“We’re dependent on the taxpayers, and at this time, the taxpayers are hurting,” Clarke said. “Our traditional go-to — that is, our ability to stick our hand in the taxpayers’ pocket — is not the same at this time.”