CHICAGO — When schools abruptly closed for in-class learning in March, teachers and students quickly had to pivot to online instruction — but some students were left behind.
While Chicago Public Schools hustled to get thousands of laptops, tablets and WiFi hot spots in the hands of students, a lack of internet access for low-income families made it impossible for thousands of students to do their classwork.
But internet access should be universal, Mayor Lori Lightfoot said Thursday. A new program called Chicago Connected aims to bridge that gap.
The program will provide free high-speed internet service to more than 100,000 CPS students and their families, according to the city. The city determined who will be eligible for the program based on a number of things, including students are eligible for free lunch, those who have special needs, those experiencing homelessness and those who live in communities “with the highest levels of hardship,” Lightfoot said.
The city will prioritize families in need on the city’s South and West sides, but especially those who are enrolled in summer school and are eligible.
The program is expected to cost about $50 million over the next four years.
“Internet access is more than just an accessory. It’s one of the most powerful equalizers we have,” Lightfoot said during a press conference. “We need a city response to close the digital divide that plagues too many neighborhoods so our students are truly empowered to learn, and that’s exactly what we’re doing.”
While schools are expected to resume in-person learning this September, Lightfoot said the future of coronavirus is uncertain. This program will ensure students are set up to learn remotely if necessary in the fall or beyond.
The program is being funded through a public-private partnership with millions of dollars in donations from a variety of philanthropists and organizations, including $7.5 million from Ken Griffin and his company, Citadel.
Former President and First Lady Barack and Michelle Obama, the Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and The Chicago Community Trust to the Children First Fund will provide an additional $750,000.
“Michelle and I want every kid in Chicago to grow up knowing even better opportunities than we had – and that requires full and equitable access to the best tools and resources,” Barack Obama said in the city’s press release. “We’re happy to help Chicago Connected reach every kid in the city. This is where I found a purpose and a family — and it’ll always be our home.”
Eligible families will be contacted by CPS and won’t have to deal with a monthly bill, the city said. Find out more about eligibility here.
Families that encounter issues with their internet service will work directly with the provider, Jackson said.
The program — “one of the longest and deepest investments of its kind” — is only planned for four years or now, but Lightfoot said “this is something the city has to own responsibility for.”
The mayor hopes students will be able to use the program for remote learning if needed, but she also wants their families to be able to use the internet so they can apply for jobs, access health care and register to vote, among other things. Ultimately, she said, the program can make Chicago more equitable and fair.
“Our hope is to extend this effort truly across our entire city,” Lightfoot said. “You can immediately see the benefits.
“We as a city simply cannot afford to wait any longer to provide our residents the basics they need to be successful … . We still have a long way to go on our mission, but this is an important milestone on our journey.”
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