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Schools confront broadband access crisis in the coronavirus era

School districts are taking it upon themselves to help families get connected to the internet as they face down a long future of virtual learning.

Why it matters: In the COVID-19 era of education, broadband is an essential service that families need to stay connected — and that school systems require to equitably educate children in their districts.

The biggest hurdle: Most schools don't even know which students are lacking internet service, and the neediest families are often the hardest to reach.

Driving the news: The Trump administration is pushing schools to fully reopen in the fall despite surges of COVID-19 cases in multiple states. At the same time, many districts — including the country's largest in New York City — are working on hybrid plans that combine limited classroom instruction with virtual learning.

Perhaps the most ambitious initiative is a $50 million, public-private partnership in Chicago, which aims to provide 100,000 public school students with home internet service for four years.

  • That’s a big undertaking in a city where, in some neighborhoods, nearly half of households with school-aged children do not have in-home broadband, according to Kids First Chicago.

How it works: Chicago Public Schools (CPS) is using students' addresses to determine who lacks internet, then gives families a unique code to sign up directly with an assigned service provider.

  • United Way of Metro Chicago will handle paying the bills for the households.
  • Philanthropy donors, including Citadel CEO Ken Griffin and Crown Family Philanthropies, are providing bridge funding for the first two years of service. CPS will cover the costs for the last two years.
  • Local organizations will help families understand how to use the broadband service and hook up the devices needed for online education.

Other efforts are also underway:

  • Missouri Gov. Mike Parson announced last week that the state would use $10 million in CARES Act funding to reimburse schools for improving internet connectivity for K-12 students, about 20% of whom were not able to access online coursework during the spring.
  • In North Dakota, state agencies worked with local internet providers to connect 1,762 homes to broadband service.
  • The Racine, Wisconsin, school district mobilized secretaries and teachers this summer to call or visit families — including those in temporary housing and shelters — to identify those who do not have adequate internet service or devices.

Between the lines: The most successful districts have maximized their purchasing power by partnering with other nearby districts or municipalities, said Ellen Goldich, program director at EducationSuperHighway, a nonprofit that is working with school districts on data collection and procurement.

  • "Service providers want to meet this need for their communities," Goldich said.
  • "But they're better at meeting that need when schools frame it in terms of a business opportunity."

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