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

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

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

However, a pandemic-era program demonstrated that Chicago can solve great inequities with a spirit of partnership and the right resources.

In the spring of 2020, following the shift of Chicago public schools to remote learning, parents at the Kids First Chicago (K1C) network sounded the alarm that many students would not be able to participate because they did not have high-speed Internet and home computers. In an April 2020 report, K1C and the Metropolitan Planning Council found that about one in five school-aged children in Chicago — most living on the South and West Sides — face this challenge.

The report spurred a partnership between the City of Chicago, CPS, more than 30 community organizations, philanthropic organizations 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 households.

In a new report, K1C found that the connectivity gap for school-aged children was cut in half in the first six months of Chicago Connected – from around 110,000 children disconnected in 2018 to around 55,000. by the end of 2020. In addition, adults in the program logged nearly 30,000 hours of learning using free digital learning resources and many families received free refurbished computers.

Yet more than 200,000 Chicago households still lack high-speed Internet access. And more than 260,000 households, or nearly one in four, do not own a laptop or desktop computer.

The digital divide is not limited to access to devices and the Internet. It’s 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 paves the way for the city to eradicate the digital divide and unlock the potential for prosperity in all residents.

First, internet connectivity gaps can be closed through community-led 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 a third of eligible households in Chicago. Community organizations can help households navigate the registration process. Their awareness should be funded by the government and Internet service providers.

Additionally, funding the federal government’s $1 trillion infrastructure bill can expand Internet service options and foster greater competition, providing consumers with the benefits of greater choice, improved service and lower prices.

Second, the shortage of devices can be solved by a public-private partnership to recycle and distribute computers to households in need. The lifespan of a computer is about three years, after which the device is usually sent to a landfill or put on shelves. A “Chicago Challenge” — a competition between the city’s public and private sectors to donate appliances to local home improvement companies and have community partners distribute them — would create a pipeline for every Chicago home to have. of a computer within three years.

Finally, the lack of digital skills can be overcome through better marketing of learning resources and better alignment between content providers, employers and higher education. Chicago has many high-quality, low-cost or free digital learning offerings, but content is fragmented between government agencies and providers. Chicago needs a single designated entity – we recommend the Chicago Public Library – to be a one-stop-shop for digital skills resources.

Additionally, content providers and employers should establish a certificate-to-employment pipeline that provides Chicagoans with professional-level certification with access to jobs in high-growth industries. To better support adult learners considering a return to school, content providers and higher education institutions should help make college more accessible by ensuring that all online learning opportunities are credited .

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

Hal Woods is head of policy and Jose Daniel Pacas, doctorate, is chief of data science and research for the nonprofit Children First Chicago.

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