The “Chicago Connected” initiative aims to provide free internet to 100,000 low-income students. Lex Photography/Pexels

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With the start of an all-virtual school year looming, Evelia Guzman got an email from her children’s school telling her she could sign up for free high-speed internet.

A sluggish home broadband had strained her family’s budget, but she didn’t even finish reading the email: She dismissed it as too good to be true.

Chicago Public Schools started the school year remotely Tuesday, and district officials say they are stepping up efforts to reach families about a new $50 million initiative, “Chicago Connected,” which aims to connect low-income students to the internet. But they have run into a “trust gap”: skepticism in some communities that they would get this service for free, no strings attached. The program has so far signed up a quarter of the 100,000 students that officials estimate can benefit from it.

“Some of the folks we are trying to reach don’t believe this is true,” said Philip DiBartolo, the school district’s chief information officer. “(They think) ‘I’m going to get a bill at the end of the month.’”

The district also is working to resolve barriers to signing up that some families and community-based groups have reported in recent weeks, including household incomes that were too high to qualify last year but have shrunk amid the pandemic.

Community-based organizations the initiative enlisted got the go-ahead to start reaching out to families two weeks ago, setting off a scramble to connect students. Meanwhile, Chicago’s teachers union raised alarms Tuesday about students who still can’t log onto classes because of technical hurdles.

Successfully ramping up participation in the program and showing that it is moving the needle on remote learning are key tests for the initiative, a project Mayor Lori Lightfoot has personally championed.

Lightfoot recently touted interest from other cities and states in replicating what officials have described as a one-of-a-kind program involving a partnership between the city, a slew of philanthropic organizations, and internet service providers.

“This program is robust and provides resources we need to fill the digital void in our students’ lives,” she said.

The national buzz “Chicago Connected” is getting is justified, says Angela Siefer of the nonprofit National Digital Inclusion Alliance, which is training the community organizations helping with outreach. The collaboration with those groups to overcome trust issues, a bid to provide digital literacy training to parents, and the four-year timeframe all stand out, she said.

Skepticism and excitement

Lightfoot’s office and school district officials unveiled the initiative after the end of the school year, following months of pressure on officials to come up with a more comprehensive, long-term response to uneven internet access for the city’s students. A study last spring by Kids First Chicago and the Metropolitan Planning Council estimated one in five Chicago students lacks access, with much higher rates in predominantly Black and Latino neighborhoods.

The first two years of the program will be funded by $5 million in federal coronavirus relief dollars and by donations from billionaire Ken Griffin, Crown Family Philanthropies, the Pritzker Traubert Foundation, and others. Former President Barack Obama and his wife, Michelle Obama, have chipped in as well. Chicago Public Schools is slated to cover the costs of the program in years three and four.

Since the announcement, more than a dozen cities and states have reached out to Chicago as they explore similar public-private partnerships, the city’s chief financial officer Jennie Bennett said at an event in August.

“We’re really excited about where the program is,” she said. “It has been an absolute success.”

Roughly two months after its launch, about 25,000 students have gotten free internet from Comcast or RCN through the initiative. The city and school district have not said how many households that represents.

Daniel Anello of the advocacy group Kids First Chicago, which helped spearhead the effort, said its architects did not expect to close in on the 100,000-student goal by the fall. The initiative was bound to be slower going at first, he said, as the city identified eligible families, tracked them down, and convinced them the program is legitimate.

More recently, the district shared lists of students eligible for the program with principals, who have been reaching out directly to families like Guzman’s. The city is also starting a marketing campaign, with commercials, public service announcements, and billboards.

But the key allies in overcoming skepticism about the program are the community-based organizations the city enlisted to help with sign-ups.

At the Gads Hill Center, Maricela Garcia, chief executive officer, said that she and her staff have put in long days and weekends to reach out to families since organizations were cleared to start making calls two weeks ago — what felt like a late start with the school year about to start.

She says even with the center’s deep ties on the Southwest Side, it’s still running into some disbelief about the program, so staff members often have to follow up on initial calls.

“Some families have responded they have to think about it,” Garcia said. “And some have said, ‘No, I don’t believe this is free. What’s the catch?’”

She said immigrant families, especially those with undocumented members, are reluctant to provide personal information over the phone or sign up for a program they might incorrectly perceive as a form of public assistance. Recent immigration policy changes can make it harder for those receiving such assistance to apply for citizenship.

But she said many families are enthusiastic to learn about the program, which addresses the “horrendous digital divide the families we serve experience.”

Joel Rodriguez of the Southwest Organizing Project says his organization is also running into skepticism but also excitement.

“Our community is one of the hardest hit by COVID,” he said. “The financial impact has been tremendous. This has been welcomed with open arms.”

Guzman, who has three children at Shields Schools on Chicago’s Southwest Side, said last spring she chipped in for her brother-in-law’s internet bill because the families share a home. But with several generations using the connection, it was often slow. After she ignored the school’s email about “Chicago Connected,” a friend persuaded her to take a second look.

“Are you going to charge me something?” she pressed the Comcast rep who helped her enroll.

Now she does outreach to other families at the Gads Hill Center.

Stepping up outreach

Officials say a key focus now is removing barriers for eligible families who are trying to enroll in the program.

Community-based organizations such as the Southwest Organizing Project have discovered that families who currently have a Comcast internet plan other than the company’s low-cost Internet Essentials program cannot readily sign up for “Chicago Connected.” On the Facebook page of the advocacy group Raise Your Hand, some parents said that because the eligibility criteria include qualifying for subsidized lunch in 2019, they were not able to sign up — even though the pandemic has worsened their families’ financial situations.

One parent, Melissa Ferguson said she was furloughed indefinitely when the coronavirus outbreak brought to a standstill her company, which provides audiovisual services to live events. Her internet was disconnected last month, and her son used her cell phone Tuesday to connect to his high school classes. Ferguson said her family income has shrunk to a third of what it was before last spring, but there was no way to reflect that on the “Chicago Connected” web site.

“The site didn’t ask me, ‘Have you been laid off? Have you been affected by the pandemic?’” she said.

Anello said he is reaching out to Raise Your Hand to encourage parents to contact the school district’s family and community engagement team to help them get around that hurdle. He said one community organization also reported a small number of would-be participants in the program being turned away because of unpaid past bills — an issue Lightfoot has been adamant should not be a stumbling block. Anello said officials are reaching out to internet providers about it. A spokesman for Comcast stressed that past debt is not a barrier to signing up for Internet Essentials, the plan available through “Chicago Connected.”

Bennett, the city’s CFO, recently stressed families will not have to provide a social security number, undergo background checks or pay installation fees to participate in the program.

Organizers say the stepped-up outreach and the community organizations’ more recent involvement are paying off: The pace of new enrollments picked up sevenfold during August, and the district is expecting even more sign-ups as the school year gets underway this week. They’re also bracing for possible service bottlenecks.

“We want folks to get through on the first try,” DiBartolo said. “We don’t want folks on hold for a long time.”

In the coming weeks, community-based organizations will also start offering training for parents about how to navigate the district’s digital platforms and guide their children during remote learning — an issue for some during the spring.

“We see this as a great opportunity to fill some of the gaps we see with digital literacy in our community,” Rodriguez said.

In the meantime, officials are eyeing an expansion of the program down the road to include families without school-age children, so they can use “one of the greatest equalizers,” as Bennett put it, to access healthcare virtually, apply for jobs, and more. At the August event, she put in a plug for further donations to the program.

“In the grand scheme of things, I am really proud of where we are,” Anello said. “If there’s anything that keeps me up at night is that Chicago Connected is only hitting households with kids in school. There’s way more we need to do.”

This story was published as part of a collaboration of seven Chicago newsrooms examining Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s administration. Partners are the BGA, Block Club Chicago, Chalkbeat Chicago, The Chicago Reporter, The Daily Line, La Raza and The TRiiBE.