School District of Philadelphia headquarters at 440 N. Broad St.

Originally published April 21; updated April 23

The School District of Philadelphia took a step back from their previous recommendation that students who don’t have reliable internet access at home could do their remote learning in parking lots.

Superintendent William Hite clarified at a virtual Thursday morning press briefing that the district didn’t mean to recommend students learn in parking lots — but instead wanted to offer it as one option families could use if they didn’t have an internet connection. The School District has since removed the parking lot guidance from its website.

Hite said the district is working to distribute wireless hotspots to families that need them — but demand for the devices is so high that he’s been having trouble securing enough of them.

“Parking Lot” WiFi was originally one of the options listed on the district website for kids whose households aren’t connected to WiFi. Included along with other free or low-cost alternatives from Comcast, Verizon and T-Mobile, it was described as “accessible around the exterior of a building such as a school or library — and generally reachable from the facility’s parking lot.”

Teachers received pushback when they brought up this previously district-suggested option to parents trying to prepare their children for online instruction, which officially started on Monday.

One North Philly special education teacher, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of being fired, said parents laughed at her when she suggested it. “You expect me to have my kid sitting in a parking lot with a laptop?” she recalled one parent saying.

“In a community where there are high rates of community violence, we’re asking kids to be sitting ducks with pieces of technology that people could steal from them,” the teacher said, noting that 4 of her 25 students currently lack internet at home.

So far, remote learning in Philly has been mostly unstructured, but on Monday the district released guidelines for the next phase.

Starting May 4, the district says, students are expected to log on every day, Monday through Friday, for at least three hours of instruction. Caveat: Attendance won’t be taken, and students won’t be penalized for missing work. To make remote learning work for everyone, the district has handed out thousands of Chromebooks.

Depending on brand, WiFi hotspots can sell for as little as $10 with an existing phone plan or hundreds of dollars for a fancier model.

Lack of internet access impacts a lot of Philly kids. Nearly 1 in 5 families in the city don’t have a reliable connection — adding up to more than 21,500 students, per 2018 Census estimates.

Across Pennsylvania, at least 600,000 Pennsylvanians don’t have broadband access, per FCC estimates, and Philly’s not the only municipality recommending the parking lot method. The Milton Area School District near State College reconfigured its Wi-Fi access points so families could use the lot.

Meanwhile, the Montoursville Area School District deployed buses as mobile WiFi hotspots to drive to students’ homes. The Connellsville Area School District southeast of Pittsburgh asked local businesses to host hotspots.

‘It shouldn’t take a crisis’ to get internet for everyone

The sudden necessity to start learning online has illuminated barrier after barrier for Philly students.

First, because so many of them didn’t have access to a computer at home, the School District of Philadelphia prohibited remote learning altogether to ensure equity. Then, when it became clear the stay-at-home order would last a while, school officials started distributing Chromebooks to make digital instruction accessible.

But that still didn’t solve the problem. In Philadelphia, 16% of households don’t have an internet connection — meaning their borrowed Chromebooks were essentially useless.

In the meantime, Philadelphia school district officials have guided parents and students to a few backup plans.

For two months, families can get Comcast’s discounted Internet Essentials program totally for free. But after two months, they have to start paying to keep the service.

There are also discounted internet plans available from Verizon, AT&T, T-Mobile and Sprint.

The North Philly special ed teacher Billy Penn spoke with said she wished internet access had been a priority before coronavirus.

“There has to be a solution that unlocks free internet for low-income families without having to jump through hoops,” she added. “It shouldn’t take a crisis like this for it to happen. Our kids should’ve been able to access the internet before a pandemic.”

Michaela Winberg is a general assignment reporter at Billy Penn. She covers LGBTQ people and culture, public spaces, and transportation and mobility. She also sometimes produces radio and web features...