Comcast’s Roberts family donates $5 million for Chromebooks

The donation will pay for nearly half the District's cost of purchasing and distributing laptops for students.

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

The founding family of Comcast is paying for nearly half the cost of providing laptops to all students in the School District of Philadelphia.

Aileen and Brian Roberts have given $5 million to the District’s philanthropic arm toward the $11 million price tag of the District’s purchase and distribution of Chromebooks for all students who need them.

Giving all students access to technology is a step toward allowing the District to proceed with a structured online learning plan while students are out of school due to the COVID-19 virus. Although the guidelines have since been modified, federal and state rules have required that districts offering “continuity of education” must provide it for all children.

A major concern has been services for students with disabilities and English learners, but the question of access to all the tools of learning is also a big issue. Many educational advocates, including some members of Philadelphia’s Board of Education, have drawn attention to how this crisis is shining a spotlight on the digital divide and unequal educational opportunity in Pennsylvania.

“We’re living in an unprecedented time, and COVID-19 is presenting our society with new challenges every day,” said Aileen and Brian Roberts in a statement. “When we heard that many Philadelphia students weren’t going to be able to learn from home without laptops, we quickly decided we wanted to help and provide these teachers, parents and students with the technology they need to begin learning online within just a few weeks. In good times or bad, now all of our Philadelphia students will have access to technology to help them succeed.”

The Robertses cited a 2019 District survey in which only about half of 3rd- through 12th-grade students reported that they have the computers at home and online access.

In addition to the 50,000 new Chromebooks that will be supported by the Robertses’ gift, the District will distribute some 40,000 laptops usually used only in schools. Superintendent William Hite said he would roll out a more detailed timetable and plan for that this week. The plan is for students and teachers to begin online learning on April 13.

“The generous gift from Aileen and Brian Roberts and their family will help to transform the learning experience for thousands of Philadelphia’s public school students, who will now be able to access online educational resources from home,” said Hite. “Our public schools belong to all of us, and this is a great example of what’s possible when we work together to improve educational supports for all of our young people. I am grateful for their generosity.”

The donation was to the Fund for the School District of Philadelphia, which raises money to support education in the city, connecting philanthropic interests with projects and schools.

“The Fund is delighted to be the recipient of this most generous gift,” said Donna Frisby Greenwood, president and CEO of the fund. “We will do our part to implement this much needed and appreciated gift.”

Comcast is currently offering low-income families two months of free service through its Internet Essentials program.

Brian Roberts’ father, Ralph, founded Comcast; Brian Roberts is now the CEO.