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 challenges they already face, including lack of access to stable income, housing, food and child care.

However, one pandemic-era program demonstrated that Chicago can solve huge disparities when there is a spirit of partnership and the right resources.

In spring 2020, following Chicago Public Schools transition to distance learning, parents in Kids First Chicago (K1C) Network raised the alarm that many students would not be able to participate because they do not have broadband internet and computers at home. 1 April 2020 report goodK1C and the Metropolitan Planning Council revealed that nearly one in five school children in Chicago – most of whom live on the South and West Sides – face this challenge.

The report inspired the launch of a partnership between the City of Chicago, CPS, more than 30 community-based organizations, philanthropies and Internet service providers Chicago ConnectedCountry’s most comprehensive internet connectivity program for school age students.

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

in a new report goodK1C found that the connectivity gap for school-age children halved during the first six months of Chicago Connected – from about 110,000 disconnected children in 2018 to about 55,000 by the end of 2020. In addition, adults in the program logged nearly 30,000 learning hours using the program. Free digital learning resources, and many families received free refurbished computers.

However, despite these benefits, more than 200,000 Chicago households still do not have access to high-speed Internet. Additionally, of the more than 260,000 households in Chicago, nearly one in four, do not own a laptop or desktop computer.

And the digital divide extends far beyond access to devices and 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 participating fully in modern society. The world of opportunity is closed to them and prevents their upward economic mobility.

The model of partnership established by Chicago Connected offers the city a path to bridging the digital divide and giving all residents the ability to thrive.

First, the internet connectivity gap can be tackled through community-led efforts to sign up households in the federal government’s Affordable Connectivity Program (ACP), as well as by expanding available internet offerings in the city. ACP, which provides a $30 monthly subsidy for Internet service, has only used by a third of eligible families in Chicago. Community organizations can increase participation by helping families navigate the sign-up process. Their outreach should be funded by both the government and internet service providers.

Additionally, funding from the federal government’s $1 trillion infrastructure bill could expand Internet service options and foster more competition – giving consumers the benefits of more choice, better service and lower prices.

Second, equipment shortages can be addressed through public-private partnerships to recycle computers and distribute them to households in need. A computer has a lifespan of about three years, after which the device is usually sent to a landfill or shelved. A “Chicago Challenge”—a competition between the city’s public and private sectors to donate equipment to local computer refurbishment companies and community partners to deliver them to homes in need—will build an equipment recycling pipeline so that every Chicago household has three Have a computer within years.

Finally, the digital skills shortage can be addressed with better marketing of learning resources and stronger alignment between content providers, employers and higher education. Chicago has many low- to no-cost, high-quality digital learning offerings, but content is fragmented across government agencies and providers. Chicago needs a single, designated entity – we recommend the Chicago Public Library – to be the one-stop-shop for digital skills resources.

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

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 desire and commitment to succeed.

Hal Woods head of policy and jose daniel packas, PHD., Head of data science and research for a non-profit Kids First Chicago,

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