Decades ago, Comcast Corp. founder Ralph Roberts had an idea. The internet was new and promising for educational uses, and he wanted to get computers into every classroom in the Philadelphia School District.
The donation never happened. District officials said they weren’t equipped to accept the technology and they had no curriculum in place, Roberts’ son Brian, now the Comcast CEO, said.
But the idea lingered.
So, when Aileen Roberts read that Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. had said the school system would need to purchase millions of dollars worth of technology to make large-scale learning during the pandemic possible for Philadelphia’s children, she told her husband about the need. Then, Brian, Aileen and their three adult children began talking about covering some of the cost.
On Thursday, the family gave $5 million to the Fund for the Philadelphia School District, the school system’s charitable arm, to help pay for 50,000 Chromebooks for students in the Philadelphia School District.
“It was just something that jumped out at us,” Aileen Roberts said.
“There’s nothing much better than helping kids get on with their education, particularly at this time,” Brian Roberts said. “Not being able to go to school was pretty stark.”
Children in private schools and in better-resourced suburbs have made or are poised to make the transition to digital learning during the coronavirus outbreak because most of their families have computers and internet access at home, unlike the majority of Philadelphia students. District officials said only half of high school students and less than half of elementary school students have a computer at home.
Early guidance from the Pennsylvania Department of Education said that if a district could not provide education for all of its students, it could not provide it for any. Some teachers offered optional work, and the district provided paper packets with enrichment activities, but no formal instruction could take place without the Chromebooks.
The school board Thursday night approved the allocation of $11 million to buy 50,000 Chromebooks from a company called Computer Dealers International; the Roberts’ gift will offset the amount that needs to come out of the district’s operating fund. An additional 40,000 computers will come from district schools, repurposed for students’ home use during the COVID-19 closure.
Pennsylvania schools have been ordered closed at least through April 6; Hite has said the earliest students could return to classes is April 13, but the Chromebook purchase signals that the closure is likely to continue past that date.
Hite has said the computers will be ready for distribution by April 8 and that instruction will begin by April 17. District officials are seeking volunteers to distribute the machines, and say families will receive time slots to pick up the Chromebooks, which will be handed out observing social distancing guidelines.
Aileen and Brian Roberts, who had previously donated to the Fund for the School District of Philadelphia, said they were glad to be part of the solution.
“The fund is delighted to be the recipient of this most generous gift,” Donna Frisby Greenwood, executive director of the fund, said in a statement. “We will do our part to implement this much needed and appreciated gift.”
Separate from the Roberts’ family gift, Comcast has offered families living in poverty two free months of internet service.