In Some Chicago Neighborhoods, Up To Half Of The Kids Can’t Get Online

A new report calls on Chicago officials to pressure internet providers to give free long-term connections to low-income families.

computers
With school computer labs like this one closed because of the novel coronavirus, students from many Chicago neighborhoods are left without internet access in their home communities. Marc Monaghan / WBEZ
computers
With school computer labs like this one closed because of the novel coronavirus, students from many Chicago neighborhoods are left without internet access in their home communities. Marc Monaghan / WBEZ

In Some Chicago Neighborhoods, Up To Half Of The Kids Can’t Get Online

A new report calls on Chicago officials to pressure internet providers to give free long-term connections to low-income families.

Chicago’s stark digital divide is leaving as many as half the children in some neighborhoods unable to connect online to participate in remote learning, according to a new report.

The analysis, done by Kids First Chicago, an education advocacy organization, and the Metropolitan Planning Council, calls on the city to convince companies to give free or greatly subsidized internet to families, not just for a few months as they’re offering now, but over the long term.

“If we say we want to make sure connectivity is fundamental, then we should get access to families so we don’t have gaps in who can learn from home, work from home,” said Daniel Cooper, director of research for the Metropolitan Planning Council.

The report also makes smaller recommendations, such as creating WiFi “superspots” in schools or community organizations where families can log on or handing out hotspot devices. But these steps can’t replace broadband internet access because they have speed and location limitations.

The need for students to get online to do remote learning while schools are closed for in-person classes is bringing the issue of internet access to the forefront. But Cooper notes limited internet is isolating for adults too.

Overall, about 20% of children in Chicago live in homes without the internet. West Englewood and Englewood on the South Side are the least connected, with only about half of the children having access, the report found, based on U.S. Census data. On the West Side, only about 40% of students in the North Lawndale neighborhood are connected.

Chicago Public Schools officials say they are working with internet service providers to see how they can bridge the gap. But so far, the city and the school district are telling the vast majority of parents to sign up for short-term free programs offered by internet providers.

Families, however, are often wary of committing to an additional bill, even if it won’t come due immediately, said Daniel Anello, chief executive director of Kids First Chicago. Other people have said that families may be intimidated by what they think will be required of them when they sign up, such as good credit or a bank account.

Anello said his organization became interested in this issue when it started hearing from families that they didn’t have internet access. He said he knew this was a problem, but was surprised at the concentration of the lack of internet access.

Sarah Karp covers education for WBEZ. Follow her on Twitter @WBEZeducation and @sskedreporter.