PITTSBURGH, Pa., April 30, 2020 – The Heinz Endowments announced today grants totaling $610,000 to support efforts to provide students in Pittsburgh and neighboring suburbs with laptops and other computer devices to use at home for distance learning while schools are closed during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The grants are part of a second wave of emergency funding of more than $2.3 million from the Endowments to help support frontline workers and address critical human needs during the crisis (see today’s news release: ‘Heinz Endowments announces further $2.3M in emergency funding to combat COVID-19 crisis’).
Funding for computers for school students includes $360,000 to the Pittsburgh Public Schools, $200,000 to the Allegheny Intermediate Unit and $50,000 to the community development nonprofit Neighborhood Allies.
Like many issues that have received heightened attention during the pandemic, initiatives to distribute computer equipment to local families have exposed long-existing disparities among communities. The digital divide, which has received less attention in recent years with the proliferation of smart phones and the availability of computers in community locations such as public libraries, is getting renewed scrutiny.
The closure of schools, libraries and even some Wi-Fi-connected restaurants and coffee shops has revealed that many families lack internet access as well as the computer hardware necessary for everything from school work to job applications.
“The Endowments has a history of promoting and supporting quality education, and during this crisis, we are committed to assisting efforts to provide local students with the tools they need to learn, despite difficult circumstances,” said Grant Oliphant, President of the Endowments. “But philanthropy can only do so much. Ensuring equitable access to digital technology requires lawmakers to re-examine policies in response to both the pandemic and long-term needs.”
“What’s happening with COVID-19 is that we’re identifying inequities that have existed but now are exaggerated,” said Endowments Vice President of Learning Michelle Figlar. “We’re putting a stake in the ground to say that we’re going to do something…but this is just one step. The ultimate step is policy change.”
Currently, Pittsburgh Public Schools officials are trying to get several thousand laptops into the hands of students, a task with an expected cost of $1.5 million which may go higher. The Allegheny Intermediate Unit, which provides educational services to Allegheny County school districts outside of Pittsburgh, needs at least $1 million to provide computers to districts where student access to technology is lacking, including Woodland Hills, McKeesport, Clairton, Penn Hills, Highlands, Cornell and Sto-Rox.
Neighborhood Allies is partnering with the Pittsburgh Technology Council, Computer Reach, University of Pittsburgh, Aurora Tech, Google, and others to provide refurbished computers initially to Pittsburgh Public Schools students and then to students and families in need in other districts. Neighborhood Allies also has teamed with the Pittsburgh Technology Council, Computer Reach and the city school district to launch the ‘Beyond the Laptops’ campaign to unlock a $200,000 challenge grant as part of a dollar-for-dollar fundraiser to generate more money for laptops that can be given to local students.
At the same time, these and other groups are trying to work out arrangements with large and small internet providers to connect digital service with families receiving computer devices, revealing a patchwork of options but no broadly available access.
For example, the nonprofit Meta Mesh Wireless Communities is building a low-cost, community-based network with its own fiber bandwidth and wireless service on a neighborhood-by-neighborhood, town-by-town basis. Comcast provides discount internet service through its Internet Essentials program to customers who are eligible for public assistance. Because of the pandemic, the company also is offering two months of free service to eligible residents who apply through Internet Essentials by June 30.
But under state law, municipal broadband that would cover an entire city or town at what would likely be low fees for all residents can only be made available if there are no private telecom companies that would provide that service. As a result, Pennsylvania is one of less than 20 states in the country that essentially preempts municipalities from establishing pubic broadband service, according to a 2017 National League of Cities report.
Those policy restrictions are attracting the attention of organizations that recognize closing the technology gap is a task that must continue beyond the pandemic.
“This isn’t a luxury. This is like gas or electric [service]. It’s essential,” said Patrick Dowd, Executive Director of Allies for Children, one of the Endowments’ grantees that is working on expanding internet access. “We’re trying to elevate this issue for officials in our county…We know the top priorities right now are things like food. But the real opportunity is what happens out of this crisis, and [equitable access] is something that we should prioritize.”
For the Endowments, helping to provide internet connectivity to more students is part of the foundation’s “continuity of education” approach, which includes addressing a range of needs during the coronavirus pandemic, Ms. Figlar said. She noted that with the help of an Endowments grant, the nonprofit Vision to Learn is mailing free eyeglasses to children whose eyes were tested in school before the closures — allowing those students to better read from the new computers they might receive.
The foundation also wants to promote connecting students not only to their schoolteachers, but also to arts organizations, services through the Allegheny County Department of Human Services, and even friends and other family members, especially during this time when maintaining relationships is critical to personal well-being.
“It’s a very holistic approach,” she said. “It’s really about being able to be connected to other people.”
Note to Editors: For full story of Endowments’ new wave of grants from its Emergency fund, see today’s news release ‘Heinz Endowments announces further $2.3 million in emergency funding to combat COVID-19 crisis.’
For information contact:
The Heinz Endowments