When COVID-19 put children’s education on the line, the Waterloo school district in Iowa had to make some quick decisions. “As soon as the Governor of Iowa announced a recommendation to close schools, our team sprang into action.” says Matt O’Brien, executive director of technology for Waterloo Community Schools.
One particular decision, a partnership with local internet service provider, Mediacom, was a game-changer for students without an existing home internet connection. This is the story of how they did it – and why partnership like this one are critical to successful distance learning semesters as schools re-open this fall and beyond.
A Low-to-No Cost Internet Option
“Waterloo is a very diverse community in terms of both ethnicity and socioeconomic status,” says O’Brien. “With the move to remote learning, we absolutely didn’t want internet access to be a barrier.”
Thanks to a survey conducted early into the pandemic, O’Brien’s team knew that hundreds of Waterloo students did not have a home internet connection. This was a major barrier for students who needed to learn from home, so the district turned to Mediacom – one of the area’s primary internet service providers! Building on an existing relationship with Mediacom, the district helped raise awareness of the company’s “Connect2Compete” program, which provides low-cost internet to families eligible for free or reduced-cost lunch through the National School Lunch Program.
But as many families experience financial struggles due to the pandemic, the school district knew it needed to go further. Together, Waterloo Community Schools and Mediacom worked to create a bulk-service agreement in which the internet service provider covered 100% of the installation and material costs, while the school district stepped in to cover the $9.95 per month cost of service. This partnership ensured that qualifying families could be identified and connected quickly.
The approach was effective and within five weeks, more than 358 Waterloo families gained high-speed internet service. “This was an important part of our efforts to ensure lack of internet was not a barrier to continuous student learning.” said O’Brien.
Across the district, 164 families qualified for the no-cost service provided by the partnership while the others were able to obtain a home internet connection through Mediacom’s low-cost Connect2Compete program. These connections do more than enable students to learn from home, they empower every member of the household and allow them to develop new skills, apply for jobs, register to vote, and much more.
The team at Mediacom is fully invested in supporting members of the Waterloo community during the pandemic and for the long term. “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.”
Addressing the “Device” Gap
The district also recognized that internet service alone would not be enough for some students. Computer access would also be a challenge to distance learning. To meet equipment needs, the school made sure every student in grades two through twelve had a district-issued laptop. The devices were distributed by means of a curbside pick-up night.
“Our staff went to extraordinary lengths to reach out to students and ensure that nobody slipped through the cracks,” 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.”
Replicating the Waterloo Model
As the Waterloo schools opened their doors for a new school year in August, students, educators and families across the region felt the positive effects of the Mediacom partnership.
“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 work continues nationwide. The Waterloo partnership is just one example of many similar initiatives taking root in cities and communities across the country through K-12 Bridge to Broadband, an initiative from not-for-profit, EducationSuperhighway, and America’s cable internet providers. Thanks to the success of the Waterloo model and Mediacom’s ability to quickly replicate the partnership in other districts, thousands of students will gain access to broadband as they go back to school from home.
A “Return to Learn” Plan
For the fall 2020 semester, the Waterloo Return-to-Learn plan includes options for virtual instruction through a hybrid learning model, with families able to request both internet access and technical support for distance learning. In this way, the necessary innovations spurred by the pandemic will be wrapped into a more complete, varied, and safe program of education – all thanks to the power of collaboration and broadband.
Thanks to this partnership with Mediacom, hundreds of families in Waterloo, IA managed to get connected to the internet, But across the country, thousands more continue to struggle in education, employment, and daily life without dependable broadband. To join our efforts to provide quality connectivity for all Americans, sign our petition.