As the COVID-19 pandemic forced a nationwide shift to distance learning, schools and internet service providers quickly mobilized to close the gaps for students without a home internet connection. In Iowa, a collaboration between Mediacom Communications and Waterloo Community Schools allowed K-12 education to continue.
“Waterloo is a very diverse community in terms of both ethnicity and socioeconomic status.” says Matt O’Brien, executive director of technology for Waterloo Community Schools. “With the move to distance learning, we absolutely didn’t want internet access to be a barrier.” By building on an existing relationship with Mediacom – one of the area’s primary internet and fiber providers – O’Brien’s team found a solution that could serve families in need across the district.
With children’s education on the line, Waterloo Community Schools and Mediacom entered into a bulk-service agreement. Mediacom adapted its existing low-cost internet program, Connect2Compete, for Waterloo students who were eligible for free or reduced-lunch. The internet service provider covered 100% of the installation and material costs, while the school district stepped in to cover the cost of service. Together, Mediacom and the district’s technology services team ensured that qualifying families could be identified and connected quickly.
In addition, thanks to the results of an early district survey, school staff were able to reach out to all families who indicated they didn’t have internet at home. Staff shared information about Mediacom’s Connect2Compete program, then worked with Mediacom to get additional families connected at a discounted rate of $9.95 per month, with 60 days of free service during the pandemic.
“We completed installation of internet service to families on the school’s list, but local officials and our community team understand that families face uncertainties, and there are still families without adequate internet service.” said Mediacom Group Vice President Steve Purcell, “We will continue Mediacom’s investment in this low-cost access program, and add more Waterloo families as Connect2Compete subscribers.”
The school district also recognized that an internet connection was just one piece of the distance learning puzzle. To meet equipment needs, the school expanded an existing program and distributed Chromebooks to students in grades two to twelve.
“Our staff went to extraordinary lengths to reach out to students and ensure that nobody slipped through the crack,” says O’Brien. “It was amazing to hear stories of how our teachers, administrators, and support staff would do anything necessary to reach and support families—from joining social media to reaching out to dropping items at student doorsteps.”
By partnering with Mediacom and providing device access, the district was able to minimize learning loss in the spring and execute its “Return to Learn” plan for the Fall 2020 semester. When Waterloo Community Schools reopened in August, Mediacom had connected over 358 student families to broadband, 164 of which qualified for the no-cost option made possible by the district partnership.
“We were thankful that Mediacom offered us the ability to connect families under a school district account at the same discounted Connect2Compete rate.” O’Brien noted, “This was an important part of our efforts to ensure lack of internet was not a barrier to continuous student learning.”
The Waterloo model has since caught the attention of other school districts. “Leaders from Waterloo Community Schools took action quickly and efficiently, and other school districts took notice. Mediacom was asked to replicate the Waterloo partnership with several other school districts in Iowa and Illinois,” said Mediacom’s Purcell. “But the success in Waterloo really stands out and continues… The dual approach, with some families assigned for internet through the school district, and a larger number participating as individual subscribers, ensures greater access to online learning from home for K-12 students.”
The partnership model, which enables school districts to purchase internet service for low-income families through sponsored service agreements, will be replicated around the country through the industry’s new K-12 Bridge to Broadband initiative.