Colleen Michaels/shutterstock

Colleen Michaels/shutterstock

Philadelphia has become the latest major city to announce its schools will open virtually and that it has formed a public-private partnership to provide low-income K-12 student households with free internet access and devices. 

The two-year, $17.1 million partnership, named PHLConnectED, will cover up to 35,000 low-income households and serve students from traditional public schools, charter schools and private schools. The effort will also provide digital skills training and tech support for families. PHLConnectedED follows on the heels of news announced by the School District of Philadelphia, the eighth-largest in the nation with more than 132,000 students, that it would reverse course and open the new academic year with remote learning. Last month, officials said it would adopt a hybrid model. Its school year starts September 2.

Philanthropy Mobilizes Around Remote Learning

Philadelphia joins the list of large school districts pivoting as 17 out of the 20 largest school districts in the nation have announced decisions to reopen through all-remote learning. It is also the fourth major city to unveil a public-private partnership that has raised millions to bridge the digital divide for low-income students over multiple years, following a $50-million venture between the City of Chicago and local funders revealed last month and a $10 million gift from Twitter co-founder Evan Williams and his wife, Sara, to provide devices, internet access and tech support to students in the San Francisco Unified School District. Inside Philanthropy also reported previously that businesses and funders in Detroit donated $23 million to provide 51,000 public school students with devices and connectivity before the end of the school year.

Most of the funding for PHLConnectED, $11 million, comes from philanthropy. The Comcast NBCUniversal Foundation contributed $7 million, and the Lenfest Foundation, the Neubauer Family Foundation, the Philadelphia School Partnership, and the William Penn Foundation donated $1 million apiece. The City of Philadelphia is giving $2 million from CARES Act funding. The remainder of the cost will be divided among the school district, charter schools, private schools and other sources. Comcast is one of two internet service providers participating in the Chicago venture.

The estimated figure of 35,000 students was based on census tract data, a survey of families the School District of Philadelphia conducted, and the customer lists of the largest internet service providers in the city.

Elliot Weinbaum, program director at the William Penn Foundation (read our coverage of the foundation’s work in early childhood education during the crisis), said PHLConnectED has been in the works since the end of the previous academic year. The program underlines a fast-growing reality: More and more schools are wary of reopening physically with the great deal of uncertainty that accompanies it.

“Schools want to plan for the most effective instruction they can deliver,” Weinbaum says. “And right now, the most certain option seems to be a virtual one.”

Trying to Close a Persistent Digital Divide

There are many inequalities within education, but none more urgent right now than the digital divide. The pandemic has accelerated progress in an area that has lagged for years with much more work still to be done. Schools are being forced to race against the clock to prepare their neediest students for continued online learning. 

Weinbaum is hopeful about the efficacy of public-private partnerships in getting students connected at last.

“One of the things that the crisis did in many spheres is highlight the tremendous inequities that exist, certainly in our educational system. Internet connectivity is one glaring example of this. It’s a place where philanthropy and government can work together and figure out how to address that inequity. I hope there will be other areas that we work together in similarly. Certainly under current conditions, and probably future ones, the internet is as essential to student learning as effective transportation and high-quality textbooks.”

As the pandemic rolls into a fifth month, the starkness of the digital divide grows ever greater. What was already a severe problem before the coronavirus outbreak is now a national emergency within education. Local governments and funders are collecting data and generating creative solutions together in the absence of coordinated federal assistance. 

Weinbaum is careful to point out that two years of free internet access is but a first step.

“Our efforts locally and Chicago’s efforts similarly will meet this need for the next couple of years. And together, we’re going to have to continue to work on figuring out a long-term solution to this issue. We’re just at the start of it. But we need a permanent solution.”

If funders can rally around one area, it would be this one. Localities have done all the legwork of contacting families and looking at data. What they need is money and influence in the hopes of elevating the digital divide as a national priority.

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