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Wi-Fi holdup: Social Security question still a barrier, Colorado teachers say

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Students at Noel Community Arts School in Denver work on laptops in May 2019.

Nathan W. Armes/Chalkbeat

Two weeks after Colorado teachers unions and faith leaders called on Comcast to reduce internet barriers to online schooling, the service provider has extended the deadline by which low-income families must sign up for a free internet program.

But union leaders said Comcast has not addressed another issue that is discouraging some families from signing up: asking for a Social Security number. If an applicant doesn’t have one, they can check a box that says, “I don’t have a Social Security number.” 

Undocumented families are afraid to do that, educators said. Families are worried the information could be shared with federal immigration authorities, despite the company ensuring union leaders it would not be, said Tiffany Choi, president of the Denver teachers union.

Comcast provided a statement that does not address the issue directly. In the last nine years, a company spokesperson said, Comcast has connected more than 300,000 low-income Coloradans to the internet through its Internet Essentials program.

“We’ve made continuous enhancements and expansions to eligibility during that time, and continue to do so as more individuals and families are dependent upon home internet access for school and work,” spokesperson Leslie Oliver said.

Comcast allows applicants without a Social Security number to submit more than two dozen other types of identification to sign up for Internet Essentials, which is available to families eligible for programs such as free school lunch and Medicaid. Due to the coronavirus pandemic, Comcast is offering two months of service for free. It is usually $10 per month.

Originally, the free internet was available to families who signed up by mid-May. Comcast has extended the deadline to June 30, a step praised by Coloradans for the Common Good, the coalition of labor union and faith leaders that pushed for the change.

But the leaders would also like Comcast to reconfigure its application. Instead of asking applicants to disclose that they don’t have a Social Security number, leaders would like the company to provide a list of acceptable identification and allow applicants to choose one.

Martha Teklehaimanot teaches second grade to Denver students whose native language is Spanish. Although Denver Public Schools transitioned to remote learning on April 7, she said three of her students haven’t been participating because they don’t have the internet at home.

Two-thirds of the 54,000 school-age children who lack internet access in Colorado are Hispanic, according to a recent study by the Colorado State University Futures Center. 

The families of two of Teklehaimanot’s students attempted to sign up for Internet Essentials but were scared off by the Social Security number question, she said. Though she’s able to connect with those students by phone and text message, Teklehaimanot said they are falling behind.

“This situation has created a huge dilemma for our students,” she said.

The coalition also called on other internet service providers — including CenturyLink, T-Mobile, and Cricket — to follow Comcast’s lead and set up free internet programs of their own.

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