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Bridging the digital divide: An equity saga

June 17, 2021 Category: FeaturedLongPurpose
The city has known for years it had a serious digital divide problem.

In 2018, we reported that over 27 percent of the city’s households lacked high-speed internet  and in some neighborhoods that number reached 68 percent despite the United Nations declaring broadband a right two years earlier.  In 2019, the Philadelphia Inquirer reported that the city’s broadband penetration rate was the second-lowest among the 25 largest cities.  And according to the Pew Research Center, Blacks and Latinxs were less likely to have a computer and broadband internet at home and more likely to depend solely on their smartphones. As the world became increasingly digital, it put those on the wrong side of the divide at a disadvantage.

But it took a crisis to force the city to take action.

On March 13, 2020, the School District of Philadelphia closed all its brick-and-mortar schools to fight the pandemic. A month later education for over 125,000 public school children was reborn as a fully online experience. But there wasn’t time to prepare for a move from in-person to online education which required both students and staff to have reliable internet, working hardware, updated software, private space, and a technologically proficient support system.

Some educational experts predicted that much of these early remote teaching efforts would be “primitive and of dubious quality.” Statistics from the Philadelphia School District’s first week of class showed attendance of 57 percent of students in remote school versus 92 percent regularly attended physical school. Now there is a general agreement that there has been a significant learning loss especially for poor Black and Latinx students.

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Coronavirus sent the Philadelphia School District, one of the largest school districts in the country, and almost half its student body plummeting into the digital divide. The digital divide is actually two problems — one of access and another of skills — that has implications not just for education. “Those who find themselves on the wrong side of the digital divide — including low-income people, those with less formal education, rural populations, the elderly and older workers, and minorities— suffer further economic, social, health, and political disparities resulting from disconnection,” wrote Jordana Barton co-author of Investing in America’s Workforce: Improving Outcomes for Workers and Employers.

Students, parents as well as teachers found themselves floundering. Online was viewed as unsuitable for both young children and students with special needs. Social isolation and the lack of interaction impacted the mental wellbeing of school-aged children and teenagers. At a July school board meeting, Philadelphia Federation of Teachers President Jerry Jordan testified “But let’s be clear: remote learning was an enormous challenge that fell short in a number of ways.”

“This inequity is a significant barrier to our goal of helping all students in every neighborhood reach their full academic potential,” Philadelphia Superintendent William Hite said.

The problems had to be anticipated. As early as 2019 the district’s own surveys showed between 30-50% of school district children, depending on grade level, lacked the necessities to do remote learning from home. A more complicated situation is the one out of 10 students who have transient home lives and bounce between multiple households. That same year, the city released its IT Strategic Plan that stated “Philadelphia remains challenged by low technology access and adoption rates in many of its neighborhoods.”

The scramble to bridge the gap started with the need to provide computers.

To provide hardware to every needy student, on March 26, 2020, the Board of Education approved the School District of Philadelphia’s $11 million request to purchase up to 50,000 Chromebooks — inexpensive Google-powered laptops — for students who did not have access to technology.

The next struggle to connect households to the internet began.

In April 2020, the PHLConnectED program was unveiled. This is two-year citywide initiative designed to connect 35,000 low-income students in grades K-12 with free internet services and devices. The goal was to start the new school year with every student connected.

But the reality was more fraught than the dream.

The activist organization, Philly Tech Justice argued, “In coronavirus times, ‘back to school’ is a joke unless every single child gets high speed, affordable or free, online access.”

School District and city spokespeople were left telling the public that connecting unconnected families to the internet by September 2, which was the first day of the school year, wouldn’t happen.

L: William Hite; r: Jim Kenney. (Courtesy)

In an open letter last September, Hite and Mayor Jim Kenney wrote, “… it quickly became clear to us that solving challenges as complex as those presented by digital learning and the digital divide was not something the City or School District could solve on our own.”

Those complexities included poor people of color and immigrants who didn’t speak English. And there was also internet logistics. “Establishing a reliable internet connection requires several steps including getting a router or hotspot, a laptop or tablet, and human support to make sure all of the technical elements work the way they should,” the Hite-Kenney open letter stated.

PHLConnectED was the first step in the city’s three-phase digital equity program. The digital divide was forced higher onto the city’s priorities list because of the school crisis but it had hamstrung more than K – 12 students. To find a job, to keep a job that had resorted to remote work, to complete post-secondary assignments, to get a GED, to get public benefits, to sign up for a vaccine, to take advantage of telehealth — all required high quality digital access.

Coronavirus revealed just how digitized our lives had become and just how many were being left out.

[See related article: Can telehealth work in Southwest Philadelphia?]

In July, our sister publication Philly published an article about the City of Philadelphia’s plans to provide affordable, simple, and reliable digital access solutions for all residents. Echoing the United Nations call for broadband as a right in 2016, Mayor Kenny said he envisioned digital equity as a right that guaranteed “all Philadelphians have access to affordable and reliable digital solutions so they can work and access everything from education to training to healthcare and other essential online services.”

Comcast announced it would invest one billion dollars over the next 10 years in its decade-old Internet Essentials program to connect low-income families to low-cost internet service.

In addition, the city’s pressed its 211 hotline operates into service to answer questions from people looking to access technology support in 150 different languages.

A year after the shutdown, Hite provided an update.

The Philadelphia School District collected $7 million on donations, including from the Fund for the School District of Philadelphia, to underwrite a free Chromebrook giveaway to more than 117,000 students. They provided hotspots of families who needed access to reliable Internet.  They developed Parent & Family Technology Support Centers where broken Chromebooks could be fixed and a hotline which helps parents and provide Chromebook repair services.

“The pandemic forced us to accomplish in months what would have taken years,” Hite wrote.

This rebirth is going on throughout other areas. For example, medical facilities were forced to turn to telehealth options which the public finds both beneficial and problematic. According recent research by Deloitte, patients liked the convenience and the physical safety from infection that the telehealth provides but were challenged by the lack of human interaction and internet connectivity. And the digital gaps are also at the organizational level. Small, grassroots organizations that are led by people of color and supporting historically marginalized groups suffer the most from digital divide problems, said Phela Townsend of the New Century Foundation.

With the uptake of vaccinations and the drop in COVID cases and fatalities, the question is —will the urgency that forced the digital divide higher on the city’s priority list ultimately dissipate?

This week, the city’s Office of Innovation and Technology’s Innovation Management Team announced the start of a month-long survey to learn about the city’s digital needs. In addition to counting the number of households without reliable broadband, the survey is to examine what internet services pandemic programs residents utilized and understand the affordability issues around the internet.

“To address digital equity problems, the City of Philadelphia needs to be able to benchmark its impact with programs like PHLConnectED,” Mark Wheeler, chief information officer, told Cities Today.


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