Bridging the Digital Divide: How Broadband Kept Us Learning During COVID

child participating in e-learning

While the COVID pandemic disrupted every facet of our lives, few areas were as affected as education. After the onset of the pandemic, over a hundred thousand schools across the United States were forced to close their doors long term, leaving some 55 million teachers and students scrambling to keep vital lines of communication open. This unprecedented situation threatened to wreak havoc on our education system and cause harm to students who didn’t have an internet connection at home.

Fortunately, broadband providers quickly stepped up to the challenge, connecting schools and homes and ensuring that education could continue, back during the strictest days of quarantine all the way through fall of 2021 when many schools began reopening and offering hybrid learning. Let’s take a look back at some of the most innovative solutions discovered during this most trying of times, and a peek ahead to what the future may hold for education and connectivity.

Connecting schools, homes, and the greater community

Teenager participating in videoconferencing/e-learning

Even before the pandemic, a quarter of low-income teens lacked access to a home computer while nearly one in five teens were not able to complete their homework due to a lack of a reliable internet connection at home. Faced with a crisis, broadband providers, in conjunction with community advocacy groups, philanthropic organizations, and all levels of government, swung into action in a number of key ways:

  • In Tulsa, Oklahoma, where 95% of students qualify for free-or-reduced lunch, local organizations created the Tulsa Internet Access Taskforce to identify students who lacked internet access. Armed with this vital information, Cox Communications offered two months of free service and a free router to these families. The City of Tulsa used federal CARES funding to extend this for another year, and the school district distributed computers to students in need. Truly an example of teamwork in action.
  • In Houston, Texas, Comcast stepped in to approve the entire student body of Lone Star College for essential internet access. This was crucial for the college, which serves a low-and-middle-income population that is 77% African-American and Hispanic. Armed with pre-approvals, students found themselves connected within three days. The results are in the numbers: despite 20% of students reporting connectivity problems at the outset of the pandemic, only 4% wound up withdrawing. Internet means retention, and retention means completed degrees – a critical lifeline for vulnerable populations.
  • In Waterloo, Iowa, a three-step process got students connected quickly. First, the district sent out a survey to determine need. Second, the school district launched a communications push for Mediacom’s “Connect2Compete” program, which offers discounted internet to families who qualify for free-or-reduced lunch. Third, the district created a bulk-service agreement with Mediacom, allowing students to hook up directly through it. The approach was effective, with over 350 families ultimately signing up. Flexibility, information, and multiple options led to hundreds of new student connections happening rapidly.
  • Connectivity means more than homes and schools. Throughout the country, Comcast has created over 1,000 “Lift Zones” in community centers, providing internet connections to help students with online learning. Internet providers also invested $100 million in public service announcements to help prevent the spread of COVID-19 and educate the public about the effects of the pandemic.

A connected future for all

Looking forward, it’s clear that the lessons in virtual connectivity learned during COVID will remain with us, even once the pandemic has run its course. In schools across the country, teachers and administrators are realizing that there is no going back from hybrid and remote learning. This may take a variety of different forms, from equipping classrooms with cameras and microphones to hiring remote instructors to fill teaching vacancies to creating full-time virtual schools, as in Guildford County, North Carolina. All told, some 20% of district and charter schools expect that their virtual or remote learning options will continue post-pandemic, while a further 10% said the same about hybrid or blended options.

The great news is that while we are adjusting to the “new normal” in schools and workplaces, the gains we made in connectivity will not slip away. With the recent passing of the $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill, Congress has earmarked $65 billion for improving broadband access to rural areas, low-income families, and tribal communities.

The pandemic demonstrated that broadband is now a critical need in modern society. Thankfully, with a robust broadband infrastructure built and expanded over decades and the backing of the U.S. government, we are closer than ever to making it possible for all Americans to access the internet. To learn more about our efforts to achieve 100% connectivity across the country, click here.