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Media Coverage | Neighborhood Allies secures internet access, devices for PPS families

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By Andrew Goldstein | Pittsburgh Post-Gazette | June 11, 2020 | Read the full article

Neighborhood Allies on Thursday said it has partnered with Comcast to provide 1,000 Pittsburgh Public Schools families with in-home high-speed internet access, ensuring that nearly all district households will have the connectivity required for online learning.

The local community development group has also raised about $400,000 to help the school district purchase devices for students.

The effort is part of an ongoing campaign to eliminate the digital divide in Pittsburgh called Beyond the Laptop, an initiative of Neighborhood Allies.

“We will be covering the internet for all of the families identified by the Pittsburgh Public Schools home tech survey who previously lacked broadband access,” Presley Gillespie, president of Neighborhood Allies, said during an online video conference with local business leaders. “So 1,000 families will be hooked up to in-home high-speed internet access through Comcast Internet Essentials.”

Officials who participated in the video conference, including district Superintendent Anthony Hamlet and Lisa Birmingham, Comcast’s vice president of external and government affairs, said they knew the digital divide was a problem before COVID-19, particularly with low-income communities and communities of color. The changes caused by the pandemic, however, have exacerbated the issue as schools shifted online.

“COVID brought the digital divide into stark relief when our schools were forced to close and families and educators had to adjust,” Ms. Birmingham said.

Thousands of Pittsburgh students lacked the resources needed for online learning when brick-and-mortar schools closed in mid-March. The district supplied the resources it could through its own stockpile, bulk laptop purchases and donations, but it still does not have enough for all students.

The district distributed paper packets to students who were unable to complete school work online during the spring semester.

Education officials believe remote instruction using online tools will be a part of the lesson plan when schools return in the fall, so the need for internet access and devices will continue.

Vanessa Buffry, Neighborhood Allies’ senior program manager for digital inclusion, said the group was on track to activate more than 1,600 laptops with its partners at Computer Reach, a digital literacy organization.

The $400,000 raised by Neighborhood Allies through donations from foundations, corporations and individuals will be used to purchase additional devices. The fundraising continues, and Mr. Gillespie said he hopes to reach $1 million.

Even with the support of Neighborhood Allies, Mr. Hamlet said the school district wants to secure about 10,000 additional devices to make sure all students and staff members have one and to create a backup stockpile.

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Mr. Hamlet said he had been working toward making the Pittsburgh Public Schools a 1-to-1 device district — meaning all students are provided with a device — but the pandemic has forced it to happen more quickly.

“Historically there has been a digital divide,” Mr. Hamlet said. “We had in mind in the Pittsburgh Public Schools to move forward to 1-to-1, but not this fast. But COVID has moved us in that direction, which is great for us, great for our students and the community as well.”

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