Chicago can overcome the digital divide, help kids succeed in school

The socioeconomic disruption caused by COVID-19 has had a devastating impact on the health and well-being of many Chicagoans. For some, the pandemic has exacerbated the challenges they face, including lack of access to stable income, housing, food and childcare.

However, one pandemic-era program has demonstrated that Chicago can address great disparities with a spirit of partnership and the right resources.

In the spring of 2020, after Chicago Public Schools transitioned to distance learning, parents in the Kids First Chicago (K1C) network raised the alarm that many students would not be able to participate because they did not have broadband Internet or computers at home. In an April 2020 report, K1C and the Metropolitan Planning Council found that nearly one in five school-age children in Chicago — most of whom live on the south and west sides — face the problem.

The report spurred a partnership between the City of Chicago, CPS, more than 30 community-based organizations, philanthropies and internet service providers to launch Chicago Connected, the nation’s most comprehensive internet connectivity program for students.

Since launching in June 2020, Chicago Connected has served nearly one in three CPS students — more than 100,000 students in 60,000 families.

In a new report, K1C found that the connectedness gap for school-age children halved in Chicago Connected’s first six months — from about 110,000 disconnected children in 2018 to about 55,000 by the end of 2020. Moreover, the adults in the program entered approx. 30,000 classroom hours using free digital learning resources and many families received free refurbished computers.

Still, more than 200,000 Chicago homes don’t have high-speed Internet. More than 260,000 households, almost one in four, do not own a laptop or desktop computer.

The digital divide is about more than devices and access to the internet. It is also about the ability to navigate an increasingly digital world. A lack of digital skills prevents many Chicagoans from finding new jobs, accessing telehealth resources, and fully participating in modern society. A world of opportunity is closed to them and hinders their upward economic mobility.

The partnership model established by Chicago Connected provides a way for the city to bridge the digital divide and unlock the growth potential of all residents.

First, internet connectivity gaps can be addressed through community-based efforts to enroll families in the federal government’s Affordable Connectivity Program (ACP), as well as expanding internet offerings. ACP, which provides a $30 monthly subsidy for Internet service, was used by only one-third of eligible Chicago households. Community organizations can help households with the registration process. Their promotion should be funded by the government and internet providers.

In addition, funding from the federal government’s $1 trillion infrastructure bill could expand Internet service options and foster greater competition—giving consumers the benefits of more choices, improved service, and lower prices.

Second, device shortages can be addressed through public-private partnerships to recycle computers and distribute them to households in need. The service life of a computer is about three years, after which the device is usually sent to the landfill or shelves. The Chicago Challenge — a competition between the city’s public and private sectors to donate devices to local repair companies and community partners to distribute them — will create a pipeline to have a computer in every Chicago home within three years.

Finally, the lack of digital skills can be overcome by better marketing of learning resources and stronger alignment between content providers, employers and higher education. Chicago has a large number of low-cost, high-quality digital learning offerings, but the content is fragmented among public agencies and providers. Chicago needs a single, designated entity—we recommend the Chicago Public Library as a one-stop shop for digital skills resources.

Plus, content providers and employers should build a certification-to-recruitment pipeline that offers Chicagoans a professional-level certification with access to jobs in high-growth industries. To better support older students considering returning to school, content providers and higher education institutions should help make college more accessible by ensuring that all online learning opportunities are credit-based.

The strides made by Chicago Connected demonstrate that our city has the resources, talent and expertise to achieve digital equality for all. All we need now is the will and commitment to succeed.

Hal Woods is the head of politics and Jose Daniel Pacas, Ph.D., is the head of data science and research for a non-profit organization Kids First Chicago.

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