Anybody who follows the Instagram account of Superintendent William Hite knows that the Philadelphia School District is admirably and tirelessly working to provide its 200,000 students with a Chromebook.
While I wonder why it took a global pandemic to prompt this, providing laptops to all students is better late than never, especially now that schools are to be closed for the remainder of the school year.
For 30 percent of Philadelphia households, however, these Chromebooks are essentially worthless because these families don’t have internet access at home. Among the 25 biggest cities in the country, Philadelphia ranked second-to-last in broadband internet penetration and was the only city in the country that saw a decline in internet access in the last several years.
Normally, families could access the internet elsewhere, like a local library, a McDonalds, a coffee shop or a public internet hotspot. But we, who are now quarantined, are not living normally.
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Now, thanks to Covid-19, this dearth of internet access is much more than an inconvenience or a roadblock to engaging in the 21st-century economy. Now it is literally preventing thousands of students from accessing their public school for the remainder of the year.
Denying families an internet connection at this time is akin to blocking the doorway to the schoolhouse, imposing segregation upon the most disadvantaged families who are already underserved by under resourced schools.
But some steps have been taken to bridge this digital divide. Philly’s own Comcast was quick to tout its Internet Essentials program that offers decent internet speeds at relatively low costs. The company agreed to waive fees for new subscribers for the first 60 days, and they’ve increased the limited bandwidth usually allotted for the program. And they continue to be responsive to families’ struggles as they’re brought to the company’s attention.
For instance, when families in Oakland started getting their applications rejected due to a policy that disqualified them for having outstanding debt to Comcast, nearly 2,000 families petitioned the company to change the policy, and Comcast responded with an update online.
But Comcast is just one internet service provider, and other telecommunications giants have similar restrictions. Nationwide, roughly 12 million children lack internet access at home, which means they no longer have access to school.
In years past when students were denied access to education, the federal government sent in the National Guard. It is now time for the federal government to step in once again to defend the rights of the most marginalized families in America.
When the Covid-19 disaster first hit, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) quickly created the Keep Americans Connected pledge to pressure the business community to soften the blow on low-income communities. But the FCC didn’t go nearly far enough to shine a light on the students and families who are most vulnerable.
For huge companies like AT&T, Cable One and Centurylink to effectively deny internet to families at this time is not only unconscionable, I would argue it is an illegal violation of students’ rights to public education.
If we’re going to close the opportunity gaps, we must narrow the digital divide. Right now the FCC has the power to help us achieve both.
But there is an easy way to fix this. The FCC can add to it’s pledge that these companies ensure home internet access for all low-income families, regardless of prior debts.
The FCC knows this, and is no doubt feeling the pressure. Recently a group of the nation’s strongest education leaders sent a letter to the FCC asking for this very change.
And thousands have signed a petition to demand that the FCC guarantee every student in Philadelphia, and across America, the internet access needed to exercise their inalienable right to a public education. If we’re going to close the opportunity gaps, we must narrow the digital divide. Right now the FCC has the power to help us achieve both.
Zach Wright is a former Outstanding Philadelphia Teacher of the Year, education activist for brightbeam, and assistant professor at the Relay Graduate School of Education supporting teachers in Philadelphia and Camden.Photo courtesy Paul Townsend/Flickr