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August 06, 2020

Philly students to receive free internet access via new PHLConnectED program

Collaboration aims to 'level the playing field' as school year begins remotely

Education Schools
philly students internet access Thom Carroll/for PhillyVoice

Philadelphia's new PHLConnectED program aims to reduce the digital divide as the School District of Philadelphia begins the 2020-21 school year remotely.

Up to 35,000 student households will receive free internet access thanks to a new program that seeks to "bridge the digital divide" as Philadelphia students start the upcoming school year at home. 

The PHLConnectED program, a collaboration between the city, Comcast and several other entities, will provide high-speed, broadband internet or a mobile hot spot to students who lack access. 

It also will provide learning devices, including Chromebooks and tablets, and digital skills training to ensure families stay connected. The internet access will be provided through Comcast's Internet Essentials program. 

The program is open to eligible students from the School District of Philadelphia, select charter schools and Independence Mission Schools. 

Mayor Jim Kenney and Superintendent William R. Hite were among those who announced PHLConnectED at a press briefing Wednesday. It came after two protests were staged outside Comcast's headquarters earlier this week.

"The digital divide here has been long-standing. This divide is a barrier to our goal," Hite said. "We need to have all partners working together to help level the playing field. Speed and reliable access are critical to digital learning."

PHLConnectED will cost $17.1 million over two years. More than $11 million is being provided by philanthropic partners. The city is allocating $2 million of federal stimulus funding to the program. The remaining $5 million is being covered by the school district and other schools. 

Protestors had urged Comcast to help solve the technology inequities among Philly students by providing free internet access during the duration of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Approximately 5% of Philly students lack efficient internet access, according to district data. A 2019 survey also estimated that 50% of students in grades 3-12 lacked access to the internet through a home computer.

Eligible households will be contacted by their schools via mail, email, phone calls or text messages later this month. Officials are still working to determine which schools and households meet eligibility requirements. 

Families are encouraged to apply once they are deemed eligible. A hotline number is being added to answer questions, and consulting agents are being hired to help coordinate with applicants. 

"This is not an easy process," City Council member Mark Squilla said. "We will continue to work on issues and programs following this rollout. Our work is not over."

The charter schools participating in the program include Mastery Schools, KIPP Charter Schools, Esperanza Charter Schools, Boys Latin Charter School, Independence Charter School, Philadelphia Charters for Excellence and Richard Allen Prep Charter. 

There are about 200,000 K-12 students who attend school in Philadelphia. Of those, about 125,000 are enrolled in the school district, which will operate remotely until at least mid-November

After the coronavirus pandemic prompted schools to close in March, district officials launched an effort to distribute 50,000 Chromebooks to students without learning devices. 

More information on the PHLConnectED program can be found here.

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