While the entire nation has been profoundly affected by COVID-19, Louisiana has faced some unique challenges. First, the state is highly dependent on tourism and hospitality, an industry which was effectively shut down by the pandemic. Second, the oil and gas industry around Baton Rouge and Lafayette Parish was hit hard when the price of oil plummeted – for a while, the price dropped below zero dollars per barrel – resulting in more furloughs and layoffs. All of this was on top of the state’s existing poverty rate, the second highest in the nation.
In this difficult context of uncertainty and unemployment, school closings added an additional strain on families across the state. Distance learning, after all, requires a reliable, high-speed internet connection at home, which many Louisiana students did not have. That’s where local partnerships between school districts, community organizations, and local businesses, like Cox Communications, ended up making the world of a difference. Thanks to these collaborative efforts, thousands of Louisiana families got – and stayed – connected when they most needed to be.
Addressing the Need for Connectivity
“When you look at the challenges we face already when it comes to education, with school systems being some of the most challenged in the country, there was a lot of concern that students wouldn’t have the same opportunities when it comes to digital connectivity,” says David D’Aquin, the public affairs manager for Cox Southeast in Louisiana. “So we wanted to step in and help.”
Cox began by expanding its existing broadband adoption program, Connect2Compete, which offers low-cost internet to children in households that qualify for free or reduced-cost lunch, or SNAP. The company boosted speeds and put out a special promotion, offering the first two months free for children who signed up at the beginning of the pandemic. With social distancing measures preventing them from going into houses, the Cox tech teams became creative – in one case, even slipping a sketched connection diagram through a mail slot and walking the family through setup while communicating through a wall.
Partnering to Connect All Students
But Cox knew that even the discounted $9.95 per month cost of the program would still be too much in many cases – especially given the economic fallout from the pandemic that many families had experienced. At the same time, many Louisiana school districts were looking for creative solutions to connect many of those same families. So the parties came together to solve the challenge and connect students. In Baton Rouge and Lafayette Parishes, the school districts and Cox worked together not only to get students online, but to cover the cost of service for their families – with the school paying the discounted cost through private donors. In Baton Rouge, the Every Kid a King Foundation offered to cover up to six months of Connect2Compete service for 1,000 students. In Lafayette, the Bernhard Family Foundation also stepped in to cover costs for thousands of students through Connect2Compete and other discounted offerings.
Aware, too, that internet connectivity means little without a device to use it on, Cox took the next step. Not only did the ISP put up $15,000 to provide Chromebooks for students in Baton Rouge, it entered into its first partnership with ExxonMobil, which matched the Cox contribution dollar-for-dollar. In order to ensure that the laptops went to those who most needed them, Cox reached out to the Walls Project, a community reactivation organization stimulating the state’s creative economy. Through its community garden and coding camp project with youth, the Walls Project was able to effectively match children in need with Chromebooks.
Two Keys to Success
The keys to the success of these partnerships lie in two areas: innovation and flexibility. For schools in Jefferson Parish, for example, Cox worked closely with the local school district’s IT department to identify students who required connectivity, with the school district promoting the project to its households. In the case of Lafayette Parish, the school system needed a filtered solution that would only allow connections to classrooms. So Cox looped in its business division, which worked out an enterprise partnership with the school district. Instead of a one-size-fits-all approach, the company was able to meet school systems where they were.
In addition, Cox built a national website to help school administrators quickly identify students who could be covered by its programs. The website allows administrators to log in securely, provide addresses and prequalify families for Connect2Compete. As needed, Cox has even worked together with competitors to ensure that students could get connected quickly, providing information on the various discounted programs available in any given school district.
“In our opinion, it takes a village and it was going to take multiple providers to service the K-12 population in a way that was timely and responsive,” D’Aquin says. “Putting competition aside and coming together for the overall good is something we were proud to be a part of.”
Part of the Checklist
For Cox, a central mission has become making sure Louisiana’s students have the technologies they need to thrive. “This pandemic has challenged educators and school systems to look at what they do differently,” says D’Aquin. “What Cox is doing is helping to provide a checklist for school systems to help make sure that kids have what they need to be successful in school, no matter what it looks like. Now, connectivity is part of that checklist.”
Thanks to distance learning partnerships like those in Louisiana, thousands of students and their families are now connected to the internet. But across the country, thousands more continue to struggle in education, employment, and daily life without dependable broadband. Sign up to stay up-to-date on distance learning initiatives. Or, join our efforts to provide quality connectivity for Americans in rural areas by signing our petition.