When the COVID-19 pandemic struck, a typical day for Robert Jackson suddenly became very complicated. Due to budget cuts, the West Baltimore father lost his job at James McHenry Elementary/Middle School, so his attention became solely focused on looking for work and making sure that his 8-year-old son, Raquan, was able to attend school virtually.
With heightened stress and safety precautions, the burden of dealing with the fallout of a global pandemic becomes even more cumbersome without internet access. For several months during the pandemic, Jackson was without a reliable internet connection and had to find different ways to safely stay connected.
“The only way I could apply to jobs and get Raquan online for school was to use the hotspot on my phone,” Jackson says. “Or I would have to drive Raquan somewhere else with Wi-Fi like the school parking lot and we would work out of the car.”
According to a recent study by the Abell Foundation, about one-third of Baltimore City residents do not have access to broadband internet in their homes. This has become particularly problematic over the last year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, which shifted everything from job interviews to doctor’s appointments to classrooms to an online setting. With technology constantly evolving, internet access in the home was already important, but now, in the midst of a global pandemic, it is an absolute necessity.
In an effort to bridge this digital divide, the University of Maryland, Baltimore (UMB) has partnered with Comcast to provide internet service for up to 1,000 families from 14 partner schools in West Baltimore for a full year.
“It’s so important that the students have an appropriate level of internet access in their homes, not just for their studies, but also to maintain a sense of normalcy,” says Peter Murray, PhD, vice president and chief information officer at UMB.
Jane Shaab, UMB’s associate vice president for economic development and co-chair of the UMB Recovery Task Force’s community focus area, agrees. “This need was driving all of us from the start because we knew without internet access many families in our community and their children would be left out,” she says. “As an educational institution, UMB cares deeply about how people learn and what they learn, so connecting our neighbors with this vital service is a priority.”
This initiative began in June 2020, when the UMB Recovery Task Force’s community focus area petitioned UMB President Bruce E. Jarrell, MD, FACS, to bring internet access to the students and neighbors in the surrounding West Baltimore communities. Jarrell was happy to approve the funds needed to sponsor up to 1,000 families in need of this essential internet service.
“UMB wants all of the young learners in our partner communities to be set up for success,” says Jarrell. “Schooling online allows young scholars to continue their education in the safest way possible right now. As president of UMB, I know the importance of having the right tools available for learning and am glad that we can help get families connected.”
Since the end of September, UMB has been utilizing its community school coordinators to directly reach out to families from its partner schools: Booker T. Washington Middle School, Charles Carroll Barrister, Eutaw-Marshburn Elementary School, Excel Academy at Francis M. Wood High School, Franklin Square Elementary/Middle School, Furman Templeton Preparatory Academy, George Washington Elementary School, Harlem Park Elementary/Middle School, Historic Samuel Coleridge-Taylor Elementary School, James McHenry Elementary/Middle School, Renaissance Academy, Southwest Baltimore Charter School, Steuart Hill Academic Academy, and Vivien T. Thomas Medical Arts Academy.
So far, UMB and Comcast have identified around 600 families in need of internet access and have set them up with a self-installation kit, which allows the families to safely set up an internet router without having a Comcast representative enter their home. In addition, Comcast has a direct customer service line that the families in this program can call if they need assistance with setting up their internet service.
“We said to Comcast that we need to be assured that when one of our community members calls, they’re going to get attention and they’re going to get any issue that they have resolved quickly,” Murray says. “So we built this direct line into the contract and the representatives from Comcast have been wonderful to work with on all of this.”
“We’re proud to embark on this partnership with UMB to connect so many families in West Baltimore to high-speed internet,” says Misty Allen, vice president of government and regulatory affairs for Comcast’s Beltway region. “For more than a decade, Comcast has been dedicated to bridging the digital divide in Baltimore and across the nation with our Internet Essentials program, which to date has connected millions of low-income families to the internet.”
Internet Essentials from Comcast brings affordable, high-speed internet, normally priced at $9.95 per month, to low-income households. Through this sponsorship program, UMB will cover the cost of the service for 12 months so community members can stay connected and students can have much-needed access to online learning and other resources. And since Comcast is offering two months of free Internet Essentials service through the end of 2020, families that were not previously signed up for Internet Essentials will enjoy 14 months of internet service.
Providing this internet service has made a noticeable difference for entire families. Not only do the students have readily available access to their schoolwork, but their parents also have readily available access to telework capabilities, electronic bills, job applications, and more.
Since having internet installed in his home, Jackson has been able to help his son stay connected with his teachers and even secure a new job for himself.
“Raquan loves being able to go to school here, in our own home,” he says. “And I was actually able to fill out a couple of job applications and go on a few Zoom interviews. Then finally I did find a new job as the supervisor for housekeeping at FutureCare. It feels great!”
In addition to job access and the educational benefit, this program is providing financial relief to families working on a razor-thin budget. Rachel Donegan, JD, assistant director of the University of Maryland School of Social Work’s Promise Heights initiative, recalls hearing from a mom in the community that having an extra $9.95 in her monthly budget has been helpful and she has been able to put that money toward other things.
“Many people underestimate how far an extra $10 can go in a monthly budget,” Donegan says. “To some, that may just be a cup of coffee or a meal out with a friend, but to others that could be several bus rides to a doctor's office, or additional money for groceries, or extra school supplies for kids. For the families at our partner schools, that $9.95 is going to really make a difference in how they’re able to cope in a given month with the various burdens that they have to deal with.”
Providing this essential service also is aiding the Baltimore City School System in its effort to bridge the digital divide in Baltimore. There are about 85,000 students in the city’s school system, and through this initiative UMB and Comcast have provided support to a significant number of those families in need of internet access.
UMB hopes to continue expanding on this partnership with Comcast and is exploring opportunities to bring internet access to senior citizens in the community as well as extending the sponsorship beyond one year of coverage.