In recent weeks, several major school districts have shifted their plans from reopening physically to remote learning as cases of COVID-19 surge once again throughout the nation with nine of the 15 largest school districts announcing they will not resume in-person classes. Other big school districts, including New York City, Miami-Dade County and New Orleans, will provide hybrid learning, a mix of in-person and online instruction, and give families the choice of learning from home entirely.

But while many are breathing sighs of relief over not returning to school buildings this fall, deep problems persist. The abrupt transition to remote instruction in the spring revealed the longstanding digital divide in America as districts scrambled to provide laptops and internet access to hundreds of thousands of households, particularly low-income families of color, who lacked them. Although the gap has narrowed since the outbreak, handing out devices has not been enough. Students struggled to log onto classes if they were in households where multiple family members had to share access, causing slow internet speeds, or if they were located in areas without strong broadband infrastructure, rendering hotspots useless. Research shows students are months behind in their learning.

Schools have not adequately prepared for the realities imposed by the pandemic. According to the University of Washington’s Center for Reinventing Public Education, the initial reopening plans of school districts indicate they spent more time planning to resume in-person instruction and less so on fully remote learning, raising concerns that a fall rollout of online learning will be as rushed as it was during the spring.

A Public-Private Partnership Emerges

One city, however, recognizes that to bridge the digital divide, it needs to do more than provide a temporary fix to an ongoing issue. The city of Chicago, Chicago Public Schools (CPS) and several funders have committed $50 million to form Chicago Connected, a public-private partnership that will pay for high-speed internet access over four years to 100,000 students, mostly focused on children living in the city’s south and west sides, parts of the city with high concentrations of low-income Black and Latino families.

This is not the first effort by a school district or philanthropy to bring about digital equity. Inside Philanthropy reported earlier efforts by local funders to purchase devices and internet access for students, but Chicago Connected may be the most ambitious to date and serve as a replicable model for other localities to follow. Education funders around the U.S. should be paying close attention.

Kristin Pollock, chief of development and external affairs at Kids First Chicago, a local education advocacy nonprofit, says Chicago Connected was sparked by a report it released in April with the Metropolitan Planning Council showing deep gaps in connectivity throughout the city.

“We interviewed about 200 CPS parents to understand what the real issue was. And then as a data-driven organization, we looked into the census tract data to understand what the magnitude of the issue was. Our research found that one in five children under the age of 18 lacked access to broadband in Chicago, and unsurprisingly, predominantly Black and Latinx neighborhoods showed the most startling gaps in internet connectivity.”

In the Englewood neighborhood, Pollock says, the number jumps to nearly one in two children lacking internet access.

The report caught the attention of the mayor’s office, which then requested Kids First Chicago develop a proposal based on one of its recommendations in the report, to create a community-based, sponsored internet service program. Chicago Connected also plans to award grants to local organizations that will help families understand how to use the broadband service and build their digital literacy skills.

Philanthropists, Pollock says, pushed for a longer-term solution. “The real kind of change happened when philanthropy came to the table and said, ‘let’s think about something more permanent, more enduring, that can make sure kids truly have convenient access to broadband.’”

Where the Money is Going

Funders will give $20 million during the first two years of service while CPS will cover costs for the last two years. Chicago Connected will also receive $5 million in CARES Act funding. Ken Griffin, founder and CEO of the hedge fund Citadel, has donated $7.5 million; Crown Family Philanthropies gave $5 million; the Chicago Community COVID-19 Response Fund (managed by the Chicago Community Trust and the United Way of Metro Chicago) gave $2.5 million; Illinois Tool Works gave $2 million; the Pritzker Traubert Foundation gave $1.5 million; the JPB Foundation gave $500,000; and the Joyce Foundation gave $250,000. A joint $750,000 contribution from President Barack Obama and Michelle Obama, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, and the Chicago Community Trust will support community-based organizations in the south side of the city.

CPS is using students’ addresses to determine who does not have internet access and will then give families a unique code to sign up directly with an assigned service provider, either Comcast or RCN. To avoid privacy concerns, internet bills will be paid by the United Way of Metro Chicago so families will not have to share sensitive information such as their Social Security numbers.

Pollock says Chicago Connected has attracted interest from other cities, including Miami, Oakland and Philadelphia. Officials from Hawaii have also been in contact.

The response of the traditional powers within education philanthropy to COVID-19 mirrors that of the federal government’s: a muted and disjointed effort forcing local leaders to step up in the absence of meaningful guidance. Top K-12 funders have failed to understand what schools truly need during this time, urgent help with the basic architecture of remote learning, determining which students lack devices, and providing them with computers and connectivity. Amid the biggest disruption ever to happen in U.S. education, ventures like Chicago Connected are a promising step in the right direction—local organizations using rich quantitative and qualitative data to find solutions that attract the support of parents, schools, government and philanthropy.

Education is mainly a local issue in America, and it is becoming increasingly apparent that innovation has to be locally driven, as well. K-12 funders around the U.S. should be talking to schools and other partners about how to achieve digital equity with initiatives like Chicago Connected.

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