School shutdowns nationwide amid the COVID-19 pandemic have impacted millions of Americans, especially those children and families who lack high-speed internet connectivity in their homes. In states like Louisiana, the digital divide is significantly pronounced and difficult to remedy. Fortunately, Cox Communications stepped up to help in areas including New Orleans, Baton Rouge and Lafayette Parish with its Connect2Compete broadband adoption program. The internet service provider (ISP) had a strong, existing presence in those regions, having forged long-time partnerships with schools and community organizations. When the pandemic closed schools and sent students home, the ISP’s regional team knew that more people would now need their services than ever before and mobilized quickly.
With the hospitality industry playing a huge role in Louisiana’s economy, particularly in New Orleans, many people who lost their jobs during lockdown orders found themselves qualifying for government assistance programs and benefits, including the Connect2Compete internet option. On top of that, the state was already facing challenges in the education space prior to the pandemic, with Louisiana schools ranking near the bottom nationwide based on education performance. "There was concern from a school system level that some children just by design wouldn't have the same opportunities [during the pandemic], especially with digital connections," said Cox Public Affairs Manager David D'Aquin.
So the Cox team set out to work even more closely with school districts as a result. Over the past six months, the Cox team partnered with local schools to identify those students in need of connectivity throughout the region and get them set up with Connect2Compete or other low-cost offerings.
Nationally, Cox set up a website to allow administrators to log in securely, provide addresses and preapprove families for Connect2Compete.
In Baton Rouge, Cox worked hand-in-hand with the school district's IT department and a local donor, the Every Kid a King Foundation, to spread the word and underwrite the cost of Connect2Compete. Qualifying families could receive six months of free service, and then pay a discounted rate of $9.95 per month.
In Lafayette, Cox partnered with the Bernhard Family Foundation, other internet providers and the school district to help ease the burden of the discounted cost. The ISP's business division also stepped in and worked out an enterprise partnership to address the school district’s specific concerns about content filtering.
But that’s not all. Cox also worked with area philanthropic groups to purchase Chromebooks to distribute to students in need in the Baton Rouge and Lafayette areas. And given that those communities relied so heavily on the oil and gas industry, the ISP connected with ExxonMobil to help fund additional purchases. The oil and gas giant came back with a dollar-for-dollar match of Cox's donation in Baton Rouge. "We came together to help kids," said D’Aquin. But in order to identify the students who were most in need of the Chromebooks, Cox knew they needed to bring in a community-embedded organization to find and reach those families. The Walls Project, which runs a community garden and coding-camp project for youth in the area, became involved after Cox reached out in a quest to distribute the Chromebooks. "What happened is something truly remarkable. We've received thank you notes from families; it's really made an impact," said D’Aquin. "We're continuing on working on getting more Chromebooks handed out and establishing similar partnerships."
Cox had already been working with many community organizations across its footprint through employee volunteer projects that occur year-round, continued D’Aquin. The ISP has also established itself in after-school programs nationwide, including the Boys and Girls Clubs of America, where kids are able to connect to Cox internet as well as access a multitude of digital training resources. All these relationships made forging new partnerships during the pandemic while strengthening current ones very seamless for Cox. So when a global health crisis got thrown into the mix, the ISP made the decision to act even more aggressively in terms of media outreach and in seeking out as many new partners—even competitors—as possible to shrink the digital divide. Cox took this approach not just in Louisiana but in multiple states across the country.
"Our sweet spot at Cox is robust internet connections, " explained Cox Public Affairs Director Sharon Truxillo. "But it really takes a village, a variety of solutions and multiple providers to serve the K-12 student population in a way that is timely and responsive. By putting competition aside, we all came together for the overall good, and that is really something that we are proud to be a part of."
Cox is also a major player in the NCTA and EducationSuperHighway K-12 Bridge to Broadband initiative. The program aims to scale models such as the one in the New Orleans, Baton Rouge and Lafayette Parish region to help ISPs nationwide connect as many student households as possible to a high-speed broadband connection.
"Our company will continue to be committed to keeping people connected," said D’Aquin. “We are helping to provide a checklist for school systems in terms of making sure kids have what they need to be successful in school, whatever that school looks like."