Districts Need to Provide Home Internet Access for Remote Learning — Chicago Has the Answers

Just a few weeks after students returned to their mostly-virtual classrooms for the fall, many of the problems they faced in the Spring semester still exist. When COVID-19 forced school closures across the nation last spring, districts acted quickly in recognition that the home access gap could cause irreparable equity issues. Now, after a full summer of preparation for the inevitable, our team at ESH estimates that despite connecting three to four million students at least six million students – a startling half of whom are students of color – still don’t have the reliable high-speed Internet connection necessary to complete their coursework at home. That’s unacceptable. District leaders are struggling to find long-term connectivity solutions, and as a result, students are falling behind. 

One innovative initiative in Chicago, Chicago Connected, can provide a model for what solutions can and should look like across the nation — and proves how public-private partnerships are the key to success. 

With remote learning returning this fall, stakeholders in Chicago recognized a historic opportunity to eliminate broadband accessibility as a barrier to digital learning and kicked into gear to launch Chicago Connected, a groundbreaking, multi-year, public-private partnership to close Chicago’s digital divide and ensure that CPS students and their families have the Internet in their home for remote learning. 

At the core of the first-of-its-kind Chicago Connected program lies public-private partnership — in order to achieve their ambitious goal of connecting approximately 100,000 Chicago Public Schools (CPS) students before the start of the school year, the initiative brought together the City of Chicago, CPS, local non-profits and community-based organizations, Internet Service Providers (ISPs) and the philanthropic community who worked together to develop solutions that would go beyond stop-gap measures. With these groups leading the charge, Chicago Connected first focused on identifying inequities to understand which families were in need of home access, and then worked quickly to launch a sponsored service model, providing high-speed Internet to households for four years by directly paying for Internet service for families most in need.

After seeing the tremendous success of Chicago Connected, the team at ESH realized that this model shouldn’t just be unique to Chicago; it could work in practically any community in the country; all it needed was support in bringing it to scale. We’ve been pleased to support NCTA, USTelecom, NTCA and their member companies in helping make that happen with the K-12 Bridge to Broadband Initiative, which was announced just last week. The initiative will provide instrumental resources for school districts who need support during these trying times, rallying around five core principles: 

  1. Internet Service Providers (ISPs) will create a sponsored service offering that enables school districts to buy home Internet access for their students in need.
  2. ISPs will work with school districts directly to identify which students need at-home broadband.
  3. Companies will agree to a baseline set of eligibility standards.
  4. ISPs will minimize the amount of information required to sign up to facilitate enrollment for families in need.
  5. Companies will commit to protect the privacy of participating families by not using the supplied information for targeting marketing.

It’s not an easy feat, but Chicago’s success and a similar program in North Dakota tell us that this model works. With the support of ISPs across the country, we can help spread the success we saw in Chicago to districts nationwide, and ensure that each and every one of our students is set up to thrive this school year. This is the kind of innovation we need to solve an issue of this magnitude. We need everyone to come together, put their resources forward, and make a commitment to guaranteeing equitable access to online education for all of our children.