City-School Liaison Committee discusses digital inclusion during COVID-19


Illustration by Catherine Buchaneic

Members of the Evanston City-School Liaison Committee discussed how to alleviate internet connectivity problems for families around both Evanston school districts.

Christina Van Waasbergen, Reporter

The City-School Liaison Committee discussed ways to help students with poor or no internet connection access online learning in a Thursday meeting.

The committee, which is made up of city officials and representatives from Evanston/Skokie School District 65 and Evanston Township High School/District 202, considered both short- and long-term solutions to the problem of the digital divide.

Raphael Obafemi, D65’s chief financial and operations officer, discussed two ideas for providing the community with greater internet access. In the short term, officials could try to negotiate lower prices for the internet hotspots schools lend out to families. For a longer-term solution, the city could install wireless internet connection at strategic locations, expanding access around the community, Obafemi said.

Luke Stowe, the city’s chief information officer, said all students in both districts now have one-to-one devices, but that parents say the increased data usage from online learning has strained the hotspots’ bandwidths.

Members of the committee said it is important to find a longer-term solution to inequitable internet access aside from the hotspots lent out by schools and the Evanston Public Library . Elisabeth Lindsay-Ryan, a member of the D65 School Board, said a large-scale infrastructure project is needed.

But Mayor Steve Hagerty said the implementation of a long-term plan could involve complications, so the city should proceed with caution.

“There’s a whole bunch of examples where cities spent a lot of money putting this in, and it hasn’t worked well at all, and they’re underwater with their investment,” Hagerty said. “A lot of planning would have to go into this, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try.”

As a short-term solution, Eric Wacker, D65’s network and information security manager, suggested the city could partner with telecommunication companies that have programs to provide low-income families with internet access at discounted rates. He said these programs can provide families with faster internet than the lent-out hotspots at a lower cost than the schools and EPL pay for the hotspots.

Similarly, Nichole Pinkard, Northwestern University’s faculty director for community education partnerships, said the city could create a program like the one Chicago is building to provide free high speed internet access to low income families. The committee agreed to form a working group to look into this possibility.

Wacker said that while a large scale project to provide internet access throughout the city would alleviate some digital problems, the process would take time and would not immediately help students access online learning.

“There’s no magic wand we can wave and have WiFi throughout the city in six months,” Wacker said.

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Twitter: @cvanwaasbergen

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