In April of 2020, Illinois extended its mandated statewide school closure through the remainder of the 2019–20 school year just shortly after the CDC declared COVID-19 a pandemic.
Chicago Public Schools quickly had to shift its approach to implement online curriculum and accommodate its students. CPS managed to hand out more than 128,000 devices and an additional 39,000 were distributed when it was announced that students would continue remote learning through the fall.
Despite the great feat, a larger inequity impeded the quality education of many students. According to US Census data, 110,000 Chicago children under the age of 18 don’t have access to internet services.
This barrier disproportionately affects Chicago’s low-income families and people of color. In the city’s South and West side neighborhoods, this inequity is especially evident. For example, in Austin, 7,801 children under the age of 18 are without broadband access, and in South Lawndale the number is 6,624. That pales in comparison to North Side neighborhoods such as Lakeview and Lincoln Park, where the numbers are close to 500.
In households without access to devices and high-speed internet, students likely already struggle to get homework done, collaborate with teachers and classmates, and ask questions on school projects, even before the pandemic. This highlights a larger issue, access to the internet is critical to students’ success and is an issue of educational equity.
Jesse Desai, a 7th and 8th grade social science teacher at Fairfield Academy in Chicago’s West Englewood neighborhood, shared his experience with the sudden transition to e-learning.
“It was a big challenge for kids to go from paper, having things handed to them to now, needing to be active agents in their learning and following directions," he said. “It is a few steps to go into the computer, sign in, open up Google Classroom, find the document, you know, there’s a lot of skills involved in just doing these basic things.
“Once we went remote, kids were isolated in their rooms, they were learning next to their siblings, there’s noise in the background, or there’s just like total chaos, because no one’s there.”
Desai said his frustrations with students having poor internet access.
“It wasn’t quality internet access, there were so many students that would tell me, 'Mr. Desai, you’re lagging, or my internet keeps going in and out.' They were just dropping out of the Google meet and randomly popping up again, it was hard to gauge what was really going on,” he said.
For Desai, attendance was remarkably low for the first few months of online teaching. For students who could access the classroom, he said he went the whole pandemic with the kids’ cameras off.
“Not being able to see the students really kind of sucks the life out of you, because you feel like you’re talking to a wall,” he said.
Internet connectivity was an anxiety expressed by many parents, and was on ongoing issue throughout the school year. Many were worried that because of the shift to online learning, kids weren’t gonna be able to get online, and weren’t going to receive a sufficient education.
Kids First Chicago is a nonprofit organization that assists communities and families to identify, navigate to, and advocate for high-quality public schools for their kids with clear and transparent information. They work directly with parents and the district to shape education policy to better support families.
Hal Woods, chief of policy for Kids First Chicago, shared his team’s efforts to accommodate families after the Illinois mandate was first publicly announced.
“Our communication team made over 200 phone calls to parents that are in our network," he said. "We’ve got about 1,100 parents that are in our network, and just said, what do you need?”
Community members shared basic needs of food, housing, and at the peak of the pandemic there was a huge layoffs. However, internet connectivity was a distinguished concern. Kids First Chicago immediately responded, and Wood said that in less than 72 hours his team put together a report to spread awareness about the inequity.
The report showed that one in five children under the age of eighteen lack access to broadband citywide. Predominantly black and Latinx neighborhoods show startling gaps in internet connectivity, including: Nearly one in three households in Humboldt Park, including one-third, or 5,100, of all residing children.
Kids First Chicago has partnered with Chicago Connected, a program that provides no-cost, high-speed internet service to CPS students and their families. Through partnerships with businesses, community groups, governments and philanthropic organizations, Chicago Connected is responding to an opportunity to eliminate a barrier to digital learning that disproportionately hurts the city’s low‐income families and students of color.
Woods described the process of trying to get families to sign up and check their eligibility status.
“I think when you first blast free internet, you know, sign up here, everyone’s like, well, I don’t trust this, nothing in life is free," he said. "We teach our kids that nothing in life is free. Ultimately, we just had to shift the marketing and right away say this is according to you. After, we were getting about 1,000 sign-ups a day”.
Working collaboratively with CPS, Kids First Chicago proposed an operational plan in terms of how eligibility would work. Equity indicators were utilized, if the student was an English language learner, lived in a temporary living situation, was housing insecure, if the student had special education needs, an individualized education plan, free or reduced lunch, or Medicare eligible. All of these indicators got points for the student.
“When we started rolling out the opportunity to families, it was the students with the highest needs first, and then it kind of trickled down because we didn’t know what the demand was going to be like," Woods said. "We didn’t know how fast people were going to sign up for it. About 220,000 students signed up by December, which was great."
Woods expressed a proud sense of accomplishment in assisting to provide low-cost or free internet access for students citywide, but expressed further concern for better communication between CPS and parents.
“CPS has rolled out $135 million curriculum that’s called Skyline, which is like the universal curriculum that kids can actually access from home and not on school time," he said. "At Kids First Chicago, we want to make sure that kids can be online to do that.”
Skyline is a curriculum that’s very educator-focused in terms of letting teachers know that it exists and giving as a resource to teachers. Hal says that the district has done very little to let families and students know about it.
Additionally parents need to be better informed of such resources, Chicago Public Libraries offers free homework help every single day online 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. through a chat, but most families are unaware.
Woods said he thinks the city should be collectively advocating internet service for all.
"This shouldn’t just be like, 'Oh, do you have a CPS student in your household?' type of eligibility, this should just be offered to anybody," he said.