Philadelphia schools are fully online, but an estimated 18,000 low-income families with school-age children still lack reliable high-speed internet service, city officials told the school board Thursday night.
The main issue: It’s tough to reach many parents, and even when they receive information about the city’s $17 million plan to provide free internet service for 35,000 families, they require extensive outreach — sometimes as many as seven contacts before they enroll. Additionally, signing up is not yet a streamlined process: After calling 211 to inquire about the program, families are handed off to schools, which must confirm eligibility.
And while some families without broadband internet access or a mobile wireless hot spot may still be able to access online classwork from their phones, public or borrowed WiFi, officials said they realized the urgency of dependable access in a city where over three-quarters of public school students live in poverty.
“We don’t want students or young people using their cellular phones," School Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. said. "We would much rather them having the access and the devices to do that.”
“This is a call to action," Otis Hackney, the city’s chief education officer, told the board at a marathon meeting held via Zoom on Thursday night.
Some students will receive broadband internet access in their homes via Comcast’s Internet Essentials program, and others, with less stable housing situations, qualify for mobile hot spots. The access is now guaranteed through June 2022.
By the end of the month, more than 7,400 families citywide will have been connected through PHLConnectED, as the program is known, but the number of unconnected families has not budged since Hite first disclosed it prior to the school year.
Hite said Thursday night that 295 district families have been newly connected to broadband since the beginning of the year, and district schools have identified nearly 8,000 families who need the service and qualify financially, sending each a code that fast-tracks them to connect via Comcast’s Internet Essentials program. (It has also provided 221 hot spots.)
Both city and district officials said that the work was an enormous endeavor and that the only similar project of its kind nationwide is one in Chicago, which reported a similarly slow start but now sees more encouraging numbers.
“It’s a pretty amazing thing given the short runway we’ve had to get this program lifted,” Hackney said.
Schools, community organizations, and “digital navigators” paid for by PHLConnectED will now work to get more families online as quickly as possible, officials said. Those efforts should be sped up when the district is able to hand off family eligibility verification to the United Way, which operates the city’s 211 information line.
Later, the district received a grim financial picture from chief financial officer Uri Monson, who said the district must absorb as much as $59 million in unexpected costs, most COVID-related, such as $18 million in unexpected cyber charter enrollments and $5 million for increased cleaning efforts. (It will see some savings, on a central office hiring freeze and more grant money.)
The school system projected a $700 million deficit in May; that number is now likely to be higher.
Sobered by the projections, the board warned that “there’s no way we’re going to avoid having to make difficult decisions for the fiscal situation we’re in now,” member Angela McIver said.
Given the realities becoming clearer by the day, school closures may be needed, said board member Lee Huang, acknowledging that such decisions are “highly traumatic."
Huang suggested that the board will have to talk about consolidating and closing schools “to even have a chance of having a viable district which educates students” in the future.
District enrollment is down significantly because of the pandemic, Hite said. The school system has 5,874 fewer students than it had projected, with total registrations now dipping under 120,000, he told the board.
Most of the decline comes from kindergarten registrations. With instruction fully remote at least through November, and kindergarten not mandatory in Pennsylvania, thousands of parents have opted not to send their children to district schools.
Reversing course from its earlier position, the school system has decided to pause leveling — the wildly unpopular process of shifting teachers from school to school a month into the school year, based on actual enrollment — at least until students return to school in person, possibly as early as November.
All told, 117 teaching positions should be lost by Oct. 5, Hite said. Instead, the district will spend up to $12 million to keep the educators where they are, using a pool of supplemental teachers to staff oversize classes.
Hite did not rule out ordering leveling once face-to-face instruction resumes.
The Philadelphia Inquirer is one of more than 20 news organizations producing Broke in Philly, a collaborative reporting project on solutions to poverty and the city’s push toward economic justice. See all of our reporting at brokeinphilly.org.