CPS pledges to give free internet hotspots, laptops to students experiencing homelessness

The city has secured 12,000 devices that provide high-speed internet, officials announced Thursday.

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Chicago Public Schools students use computers at a contingency site, James R. Jordan Boys & Girls Club at 2102 W. Monroe St., during last fall’s Chicago Teachers Union strike.

Chicago Public Schools students use computers at a contingency site, James R. Jordan Boys & Girls Club at 2102 W. Monroe St., during last fall’s Chicago Teachers Union strike.

Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times file photo

Chicago officials are planning to hand out thousands of free mobile internet hotspot devices to the city’s public school students who are experiencing homelessness.

Plans have already been in place to lend 100,000 laptops and tablets to Chicago Public School students to close massive disparities in access to technology as the district undertakes remote learning because of the coronavirus. Those computers are being distributed this week.

Challenges have remained, however, with CPS identifying a total of 115,000 students needing laptops, and many more still needing internet. Though companies like Comcast are now offering free internet to low-income families for a limited time, many families are unaware of those resources or had other barriers to registering for the service. CPS hadn’t made hotspots available to students, citing a limited supply.

Now the city has secured 12,000 devices that provide high-speed internet, officials announced Thursday. CPS spent $2.5 million to buy 11,200 of the devices, which include four months of free internet service. The other 800 were donated by the Sprint 1Million Foundation, and will have both phone and internet capabilities.

“I applaud all of CPS leadership and staff for moving mountains to ensure each of our students has access to the tools they need to continue to learn and achieve with their classmates despite the unprecedented challenges this crisis brings,” Mayor Lori Lightfoot said in a news release.

Schools chief Janice Jackson said the district isn’t “in a position to provide internet access to every student that needs it,” but that CPS is doing what it can to equitably help the highest-need students stay engaged and learning.

Alyssa Phillips, an education attorney with the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless, said “students experiencing homelessness face unique barriers to remote learning, and computer and internet access are essential to ensuring equity for those students. The coalition is “pleased that CPS is addressing this critical need,” she said.

The hotspots will be shipped to schools starting this week, and each school will receive one device for every student on its roster that’s enrolled in CPS’ program for students without permanent homes. CPS says that amounts to 12,000 kids citywide, according to April 1 enrollment numbers. Families will either be able to pick up the devices at their student’s school or can arrange to have them delivered.

Homeless advocates have long said that the number of homeless students in CPS is higher, closer to 17,000, with thousands of families missing out on the resources available to them through that district program.

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