By CBS3 Staff

PHILADELPHIA (CBS) — Internet access has been a hot topic for parents after the Philadelphia School District announced plans to go completely virtual through November. The digital divide for some low-income families without access just narrowed because of the PHLConnectED program, a citywide initiative that will connect up to 35,000 low-income students in grades K-12 with internet services and devices.

The program is also going to provide digital skills training and tech support for families as schools move to virtual learning in the upcoming academic year due to COVID-19.

“The goal is to connect up to 35,000 student households — close to 50,000 students — with reliable and consistent internet access this fall,” Mayor Jim Kenney said.

The program has three core components:

  • Free wired, high-speed, reliable broadband internet to the home from Comcast’s Internet Essentials program, or a high-speed mobile hotspot for families who are housing-insecure or need a portable option.
  • Distribution of devices, such as Chromebooks, tablets, or computers. Devices have already been paid for and procured through the school district, some charters and private funds.
  • Free skills training and tech support for students, families and teachers to ensure they not only get connected but also stay connected and safely take full advantage of all that the internet has to offer.

“Our goal is to identify and implement affordable, simple and reliable digital access solutions for all our residents,” Kenney said. “By focusing on K-12 student households now, we can have an immediate impact in bridging the digital divide, especially to support distance learning for the upcoming school year.”

This program is the first stage of the city’s larger digital equity initiative that supports internet adoption and digital literacy skills development for all Philadelphia residents.

With school starting on Sept. 2, time was of the essence to make sure all students were digitally connected.

“We knew that there was a significant number of students without reliable access to the internet so we were clear in saying this was an issue the district could not address alone,” Superintendent Dr. William Hite said. “The digital divide is an inequity that presents a significant barrier to our goal of helping all students in every neighborhood reach their full academic potential.”

Businesses, schools and civic leaders have come together in order to support the initiative. The partners include the City of Philadelphia, School District of Philadelphia, select charter schools, Comcast Corporation, Lenfest Foundation, Neubauer Family Foundation, Philadelphia School Partnership, William Penn Foundation and Philadelphia Housing Authority.

Other partners are expected to join the initiative.

The program is set up to ensure that families with the greatest need for internet service are prioritized. The first phase of the program is going to focus on connecting student households who currently do not have any internet access, only mobile phone access, or who are homeless or housing insecure.

The students are being identified by the Philadelphia School District, the Charter Schools Office, other schools and internet service providers.

Households will be contacted by their school directly through mail, emails, calls, or text messages later this month if they are eligible.

The program is going to cost $17.1 million over the last two years. Philanthropic partners are donating over $11 million, the city is contributing $2 million from CARES Act funding, and the remaining costs will be shared among the School District, charter and independent mission, and private schools as well as other donations. Click here to donate.

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CBS3’s Natasha Brown contributed to this report.