Chicago Connected: A Lifeline for Remote Learning in Pandemic Times and Beyond

June 22, 2023  • Diego Deleersnyder

In the spring of 2020, the Covid-19 pandemic became a problem of global proportions, but it often spurred very local solutions. Chicago Connected, a public–private partnership program between the City of Chicago, Chicago Public Schools (CPS), the philanthropic community, and community organizations, was the instrument of such a local response to a challenge that families faced everywhere: the pandemic had shut schools and brought the classroom home, but many low-income families didn’t have the needed connectivity to support remote learning. In response to the urgent need for connectivity in low-income communities, Chicago Connected was conceived as a program that expands access to high-speed internet service for CPS students and their entire households by covering the monthly cost of services.

At the onset of the pandemic, Kids First Chicago, a local nonprofit organization working to improve education for Chicago’s children by ensuring their families are respected authorities and decision-makers in their children’s education, conducted a phone survey of hundreds of CPS parents to understand the best way to support them through the pandemic. It soon became evident that internet accessibility and affordability were a top concern for many, with an estimated 1 in 5 families within the CPS system not having access to adequate digital resources for remote learning; Black and Brown communities were disproportionately affected. In June 2020, Chicago Connected was launched as a community-centered response to those challenges.

To align the program to the needs of all 77 Chicago neighborhoods, the initiative established a citywide network of 35 community-based organizations to conduct outreach, including Hispanic-serving organizations such as Back of the Yards Neighborhood Council and Latinos Progresando. In addition to supporting access to high-speed internet services, the CPS system distributed over 200,000 devices to high-need students to enable learning, and partner community-based organizations provided digital literacy training to families.

Because of its comprehensive approach and public–private partnership structure, Chicago Connected soon became a role model for similar programs around the country. Over time, the program was made available to more than 228,000 eligible students and their families, and over 40,000 households are currently enrolled. As a result of the initiative, the connectivity gap among CPS families was reduced to 1 in 10 lacking access (Kids First Chicago 2022). Chicago Connected has also expanded to provide no-cost internet to eligible students enrolled in Chicago City Colleges.

Several are the aspects that make Chicago Connected a best practice in the digital equity field. One such lesson is that trust is key. Communities that do not trust their governments are wary of enrolling in official benefits programs requiring personal information sharing. Chicago’s Latino community has a large population of undocumented immigrants who actively avoid interaction with federal and state authorities. Chicago Connected recognizes this challenge and prioritizes the use of local Chicago IDs when interacting with local families. It is a simple and discrete change in practices, but a lesson nonetheless in effective trust building for local authorities and organizations. Furthermore, by informing the initiative’s design through consultations with the target community, Kids First Chicago was able to fill two needs with one deed, building trust and increasing the program’s effectiveness simultaneously.

Another is the strategic role of cultural competency. Chicago Connected goes beyond interacting with its community in Spanish. It employs digital navigators that understand the nuances of intercultural dialogue and collaboration and are trained not to rush conversations and ask only for names and simple addresses. This model was adopted by some of Chicago’s Internet Service Providers (ISPs), whose technical assistance and troubleshooting staff members receive cultural competency training, ensuring that the bridges between local Latino communities and ISPs remain open and wide.

However, Chicago Connected has some limitations. For instance, once CPS or Chicago City Colleges students graduate, their families are no longer eligible to access the benefit, unless they have other siblings attending these educational institutions. As a result, low-income households who struggle to pay for their internet services are in a particularly vulnerable position of losing their lifeline to the digital world.

This is where the Affordable Connectivity Program (ACP), a federally-funded program launched in 2021, can play a crucial role as a complement to Chicago Connected and other community-led solutions to the digital divide. The ACP is a benefit program launched by the FCC that provides a discount of up to $30/month toward internet service for eligible households and up to $75 per month for households on qualifying Tribal lands. Eligible households can also receive a one-time discount of up to $100 to purchase a laptop, desktop computer, or tablet from participating providers. A household is eligible for the ACP if the household income is at or below 200% of the Federal Poverty Guidelines, or if a household participates in an assistance program such as SNAP, Medicaid or Federal Housing Assistance, among others.

The ACP represents an opportunity for millions of households that still have no access to reliable, high-speed internet. Still, further outreach and awareness campaigns that are culturally competent are required to make sure that enrollment in the ACP is maximized. The public and private partners that have designed and implemented Chicago Connected during the peak of the pandemic now have an additional tool to support their communities and ensure every single family has the high-speed internet access they need to reach their full potential in an increasingly digital environment. The lessons learned in terms of trust-building and culturally competent outreach will prove crucial in raising public awareness and facilitating the enrollment of eligible households in the ACP, not only in Chicago but in other underserved communities across the country.

This article is part of Aspen Latinos’ efforts to support ACP Action Week, a nationwide activation between June 14 and 22 to spread awareness about the ACP and help eligible households enroll. Follow #OnlineForAll to find help and ways to get started on the best way of facilitating ACP enrollment for unconnected and underserved households.