One year ago, our city was facing a back-to-school season like no other. Rather than returning to their classrooms, students, teachers, and administrators had to tackle online learning in a real and meaningful way.
But many of our K-12 students did not have home access to broadband internet and the devices they needed to participate in digital learning. We had to design unique solutions with many partners to get through this for our kids.
PHLConnectED is a bright spot for our city amid the COVID-19 crisis, showing the power of what is possible when the public, private, and nonprofit sectors work together. It enabled more than 18,700 internet connections, gave computers to those who needed them, and provided digital navigation support while our schools were unable to fully reopen.
Because Comcast, the Lenfest Foundation, the Neubauer Family Foundation, the Philadelphia School Partnership, the William Penn Foundation, Fralic Family Fund, the Fund for the School District of Philadelphia, Hess Foundation, the School District of Philadelphia, Independence Mission Schools, and select charter schools came together, Philadelphia students had the tools and support they needed for online learning last year — something few other major cities and districts can say.
The pandemic highlighted an urgent need for students to have internet connectivity at home, but a return to school buildings does not eliminate that need. That is why funding for PHLConnectED will continue for a second year, providing pre-K–12 students with the internet access they need as well as digital support so they feel empowered to fully utilize it. While connectivity is key to our collective future, it is only as successful as the skills provided with it. What’s the use of a computer that you don’t know how to turn on, or the internet if you don’t know how to safely browse it? Under year two of PHLConnectED, community organizations that serve as the City of Philadelphia’s Digital Navigators will continue to provide all Philadelphians with the digital support they need to connect, get access to training, and help to build a more equitable and better-connected city.
Despite our best efforts, we know some families remain unconnected. While PHLConnectED offers pre-K–12 families internet at no cost, and the federal government’s Emergency Broadband Benefit (EBB) provides a discount of $50 a month toward broadband service, effectively providing free service to any low income family, the number of the unconnected remains too high.
Clearly, cost is not the only barrier to internet adoption — because if it were, with all of these funding mechanisms in place today, the digital divide would be no more.
In fact, there are many things that keep people from connecting as we’ve learned over the last year. We will need continued public-private collaboration to raise awareness of the availability of no- or low- cost programs, more voices to help overcome trust barriers that keep people from enrolling, pathways to assist those who need assistance in their native language, and expanded digital literacy training for families.
This work isn’t easy, but we know Philadelphians are up to the task. We’re proud of PHLConnectED, and now is the time to do more, together, for our students and our residents by converting temporary relief like the Emergency Broadband Benefit into permanent policy that eliminates cost as a barrier to getting connected.
There’s still no lesson plan for how to navigate this new world. But, working together to spread awareness of programs like PHLConnectED, the Emergency Broadband Benefit, and digital literacy resources is a start. Let’s all commit to doing our part and finally bridge the digital divide in our city.
And any pre-K–12 family without reliable internet access should dial 211 to see if they qualify for free internet access through PHLConnectED. For language services, press 8.
Jim Kenney is mayor of Philadelphia. Dr. William R. Hite is superintendent of the School District of Philadelphia.