READING, Pa. - Students in Berks County whose families are challenged with the cost of internet access for at-home learning are getting a "lift" from Comcast.
The Philadelphia-based company announced Tuesday that it plan to launch seven Wi-Fi-connected "lift zones" in and around Reading over the next few months.
Each location, officials said, will enable students to connect to laptop computers and do their schoolwork remotely.
"The COVID-19 crisis continues to put many low-income students at risk of being left behind, accelerating the need for comprehensive digital equity and internet adoption programs to support them," said Toni Murphy, regional senior vice president for Comcast's Keystone Region. "We hope these Lift Zones will help those students who, for a variety of reasons, are unable to connect to effective distance learning at home."
Five of the lift zones will be located in the city; the other two will be situated in the suburbs.
The locations are: the Mifflin Area YMCA in Mohnton, the Sinking Spring YMCA in South Heidelberg Township, the Reading YMCA in center city, United Community Services for Working Families in Reading, the LGBT Center of Reading, The Salvation Army of Reading, and Calvary United Church of Christ in Reading.
"Calvary UCC is excited about this partnership because it fits with our long tradition of helping our community and those who are in need," said the Rev. Steve Ohnsman. "We look forward to being a place where students in our community can get the most out of their studies in a safe and inviting environment."
The initiative will provide free internet connectivity at each of those locations for the next three years, according to Comcast, which said its goal is to have each one up and running by early 2021.
The need for greater internet access in Reading has been a topic of discussion among the Moran administration and members of both the city council and the school board since the pandemic forced classes to be held online.
"The pandemic has affected everyone differently, especially economically," said Mayor Eddie Moran. "While parents had to choose between providing essentials over keeping an internet service during virtual learning, Wi-Fi Lift Zones have helped parents meet this challenge."
The city's school board approved a plan in August for the district to spend up to $700,000 on a service agreement with Comcast for up to 10,000 internet connections in the city.
The deal called for Comcast to provide the first two months of service for free and then charge the district $9.95 per month for each user.
The board had said that it planned to seek contributions from local companies and foundations to help subsidize the cost.
Reading is home to Pennsylvania's third largest school district, with nearly 18,000 students. The board has said that it will continue with virtual learning for the foreseeable future, as cases of COVID-19 in Berks County continue to rise.