Adapting to life online is something most of us have gone through at this point.
“The first day was chaos,” said Claiborne Wade, a husband and parent of four kids. “Either I’m checking emails in between class time or my kids are asking, 'dad can you help me with this, what’s this letter,' or 'what's this word and how do you spell this,' to making sure I have lunch ready for them on time, or even with breakfast.”
It’s a similar shift a lot of parents had to make last year. This is day to day life for many, and it wouldn’t be possible without access to the internet.
“If they don't have the internet, they can’t do the work they need to succeed in school and ultimately succeed in life,” Wade said.
Wade is also a parent liaison at the nearby elementary school in Chicago, Illinois, where he grew up. He amplifies the voices of parents in his community, many who had questions when classes went virtual.
“I can’t get in, how do I get in, you know, my internet is not working,” he explained.
The reality was over 100,000 kids in Chicago alone were without internet.
“Across the city, one in five families were disconnected from the internet. But when you actually looked at specific neighborhoods, particularly Black and brown neighborhoods, you saw as many as one in three,” said Daniel Anello, CEO of Kids First Chicago.
Kids First Chicago is an advocacy organization that’s spent the past seven months working to get more kids connected.
“The digital divide for us went from maybe number six or seven on the list of priorities for our families, to number one,” Anello explained.
It’s all part of Chicago Connected, the city’s program to provide no cost internet to public school students.
“Since we launched in July, we’ve been able to connect 35,000 households which is approximately 55,000 to 60,000 students,” he said.
And more are brought online each day.
“Internet has become more of a public need and utility,” Anello said.
Communities across America agree. Last November, voters in cities like Denver and Chicago approved referendums supporting community broadband by an overwhelming majority.
“Just about everyone is frustrated with internet access,” said Christopher Mitchell, Program Director of the Community Broadband Networks Initiative at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance.
He is watching how different cities are handling internet access challenges both in the short term and long term.
“Fundamentally we don’t have a broadband problem, we have a poverty problem. We have a literacy challenge,” Mitchell said. “In the long term, we need to wrestle with the fact that we are not on a path right now of everyone having high quality affordable access inside their homes, and we need to figure that out.”
Chicago Connected has a model meant to be sustained for a long time, and other cities are following suit.
“A number of cities have reached out to us,”Anello said.
“Across the country, there are communities that don't have it and with Chicago taking a lead with providing internet to its families in underserved communities, other cities are adopting the same program that we have here. So, I really think that speaks value to us here in the city,” Wade said.