June marks the start of summer, which also means the end of the school year and graduation celebrations. Millions of students and teachers had to adapt to a new style of academic instruction as classes went virtual when the COVID-19 pandemic forced schools to close their doors in March 2020 and for a large part of the past year. While many schools reopened and offered hybrid learning plans this past spring, it's worth taking a look back at America's first year of remote learning and the lessons gleaned as graduates leave their respective schools to start on new paths and students get ready for summer.
March and April of 2020 were huge adjustment periods for schools as teachers and administrators scrambled to put together distance learning strategies and to ensure their students had the ability to connect online in their homes. Fortunately, cable internet service providers (ISPs), community organizations, philanthropic foundations, and local government groups came together all over the country to come up with not only short-term but long-term solutions to close the connectivity gap in many of their communities.
These partnerships were and continue to be critical for low-income families with school-aged children who cannot afford high-speed internet in their homes. While ISPs have long offered broadband adoption programs with low-cost options for eligible families, these partnerships helped to further expand these programs and raise awareness about the resources and options available to underserved households.
In Chicago, Comcast worked with city officials to launch "Chicago Connected," which was a collaboration between the public and private sectors to enable as many as 100,000 Chicago students to receive connectivity at home at no cost over the course of four years. Comcast's successful Internet Essentials program, the company's low-cost broadband adoption program, provided the foundation for "Chicago Connected."
Then in Louisiana, Cox partnered with multiple school districts and philanthropic foundations to offer free broadband service for qualifying families plus a discounted rate of $9.95 per month after those six months, based on the ISP’s Connect2Compete broadband adoption program. Cox also contributed funds towards laptops and tablets for students who lacked the devices they needed at home to connect online.
And in Waterloo, Iowa, Mediacom stepped in to cover 100% of internet installation costs and materials costs for the school district's students who had no internet connection at home, while the district did its part to cover the cost of service.
These are just three of the numerous partnerships that formed all over the country during the past 15 months. ISPs eagerly offered their expertise to school districts as they worked tirelessly to identify every student who lacked a broadband connection in their home and devised ways to reach those families and to set them up properly for the long haul. By September, the K-12 Bridge to Broadband program officially launched to further encourage these types of successful partnerships and to provide a roadmap for how schools and ISPs could work together to connect as many students as possible.
LaJoy Johnson-Law, a resident of southeast Washington, D.C., is a testament to the limitless possibilities that these types of partnerships opened up for low-income families without internet in their homes. Prior to COVID-19, Johnson-Law had no idea she was eligible to receive the benefits that cable broadband adoption programs offer. It wasn't until her daughter's school closed down and one of the administrators encouraged her to apply to one of the programs that she found out she qualified through the National School Lunch program.
"When the internet was set up and working, it felt amazing. It felt like we were connected with the world. It was also a sense of relief because [not having internet] had been a point of stress," said Johnson-Law. Her daughter was not only able to continue with her schooling, she also received virtual specialized instruction tailored to her needs. Johnson-Law also pursued higher education classes online and created a digital platform for herself to run for a seat on the school board. "Now that everything is online, it has created many more opportunities, including for myself," said Johnson-Law.
But even as this semester's graduation ceremonies get back to looking more like those of years past, and fall classes go back to full time in-person instruction, ISPs continue to forge partnerships and coalitions with schools nationwide to ensure that students are connected and equipped with the tools they need at home, whether that is to learn remotely full time, complete a homework assignment, or to just connect with the world around them. Like Johnson-Law remarked, "If we all close this digital divide, we are going to create a pathway for our children like there never was before."