Although COVID-19 has touched every corner of America, it landed with particular force in communities with the highest need. One of these communities is Tulsa, Oklahoma, where a majority of public-school students live below the poverty line. Not only have Tulsa residents felt the direct health and economic effects of the pandemic, they’ve also experienced the challenges that come with lack of connectivity at a time when education, employment and access to vital services have moved largely online.
That’s why, when it became clear that schools would need to continue remotely in the fall of 2020, organizations from across the City of Tulsa aligned to get students the connectivity they needed to learn from home.
Collaboration for Connectivity
At the outset of the pandemic, 1 in 3 Tulsa households did not have the broadband connectivity needed for virtual meetings and online learning. And an estimated 15% of Tulsa families had no internet access at home through any means. “Our school district partners had expressed very serious concerns about launching their distance and virtual learning plans because of the limited connectivity in student households,” said Dr. Delia Kimbrel, director of research and analytics at ImpactTulsa, a collective-impact network that helped leverage community-based efforts to connect Tulsa students.
Understanding that no one organization could tackle the challenge of connectivity alone, ImpactTulsa approached the City of Tulsa for support, and the Tulsa Internet Access Taskforce was born.
An “All Hands On Deck” Approach
The Tulsa Internet Access Taskforce convened a group of 40+ community players, including city officials, community members, nonprofits, and business leaders. Together, the Taskforce identified 57,000 households and 23,000 Tulsa students in need of internet at home and brainstormed to find solutions to get them connected.
As it became clear that internet service providers (ISPs) would be vital to achieving its goal, the Taskforce pulled in Cox Communications. “We didn’t know what the answers were,” said Dr. Kimbrel, “but we asked [Cox], ‘Can you come and help us? Can you be a thought partner and brainstorm what solutions for our community could look like?”
Cox was able to swing into action with maximum impact. The ISP explored many connectivity options and ultimately built on its existing Connect2Compete program, which offers low-cost internet to households with school-age children who qualify for government assistance. It offered two months of free service to the families identified by the school districts and community organizations, along with a free router. The Taskforce then worked with Oklahoma Governor Kevin Stitt to secure $5.6 million of CARES Act funding to cover the cost of internet service for an addition year, meaning that families were covered for a total of 14 months. Tulsa Public Schools also committed to distributing school-owned computers to students.
In order to do the necessary outreach, the Taskforce engaged nonprofit Tulsa Responds to create an army of “internet navigators,” outreach coordinators who could get in touch with individual families. The navigators were uniquely positioned to work through barriers such as language, culture, and transient families that had previously prevented many households from getting connected.
“That’s one of the most exciting parts of the program: to reach parts of the community that were not previously inclined to sign up, either through a language difficulty or from the hurdles of going through the process,” says Roger Ramseyer, vice president and Tulsa market leader for Cox Communications and chairman of the Tulsa Regional Chamber of Commerce. “It was enlightening to see how much everyone became aligned around the same goal of making sure that Tulsa’s students who lacked connectivity would be able to study at home.”
Where the Rubber Meets the Road
Today, up to 23,000 Tulsa students and their families stand to benefit from the program. In addition, CARES Act dollars will also help fund a “Cox Essentials” internet option for a wide range of workers, from restaurant staff to teachers themselves, who have experienced serious economic difficulties because of the pandemic.
“For every family we connect, we’re changing a life,” says, Tiffani Bruton, director of public affairs for Cox’s Central Region, who has been working to connect low-income families for nearly a decade. Bruton’s team helped connect a single mother who had dropped out of a nursing program because caring for her two young boys meant she could no longer go to the library to complete her work. When she enrolled in the Connect2Complete program, she was able to complete her nursing degree. Bruton’s team at Cox, along with all members of the Tulsa Internet Access Taskforce, aim to open the door to similar opportunities for many more students and families. “Connectivity at home doesn’t just change the life of a student,” Bruton noted, “it can change the life of the whole family if they take advantage of the opportunities it opens up.”
For Cox’s Connect2Compete program, connecting students is a matter of leveling the playing field in order to make education more achievable and to make students and families more successful. In Bruton’s ongoing work to get families connected, she often remarks that “a student without access to the internet today is like a student without a pencil and paper a decade ago.”