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Philadelphia to widen eligibility for free internet access for students

Otis Hackney pointing his finger while giving a speech at a press conference.
Otis Hackney.
Emma Lee/WHYY

City officials plan to expand eligibility for PHLConnectED, a program that provides students in Philadelphia with free internet access for remote learning.

Next week will be designated “PHLConnectED Week” with expanded outreach to families, said Otis Hackney, the city’s chief education officer. City officials will release details then about who else will be eligible for the program.

Thousands of families still are not connected to the internet, he said, though he couldn’t provide an exact figure. When the program began in August, city officials estimated that 18,000 families needed internet access. Since then, they said that they have reached about 12,000 families, including more than 7,000 who had signed up for a Comcast promotion before the official launch of PHLConnectED.

“We’re using this week to continue promotion of PHLConnectEd with new opportunities to sign up,” he said, speaking at Superintendent William Hite’s weekly availability with reporters.

Since the program began, city officials have learned more about why families continue to lack internet access. One problem is that some families start the process to receive wired access or a mobile hotspot and then don’t complete it. A large proportion of families fail to take the next step, Hackney said.

The week will include incentives, including contests and gift cards, and increased communication with those families and others, he said.

“We’ve targeted those families who started the process but not yet completed it,” he said.

Hackney said that the program is working with district and charter schools and the Catholic Independence Mission Schools to pinpoint those in need.

Initially, Hackney said, the city tried to find families who had no access at all. Now city officials are reaching out to those who have some access, but it’s sufficient to support multiple students in the same home. In that case, they may also offer mobile hotspots to the family.

Some students may have access in their homes but spend their school day with caregivers who have spotty internet connections or no access. Those students also would be candidates for mobile hotspots.

PHLConnectED, funded through a combination of public money and private contributions, including by Comcast, promises free internet access through June 2022.

During Thursday’s availability, Hite also said the district is working with Children’s Hospital and the city’s department of health on a rapid coronavirus testing plan for when school buildings might reopen. He said the district will likely contract with a third party to administer the testing, which will be mandatory for any student or staff who is symptomatic.

The district is hoping to contract with an organization with mobile sites that can prioritize areas of the city that have been hardest hit by the virus. He said a plan will be finalized in the next couple of weeks.

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