There are a lot of steps to contemplate when you are designing a program to connect your students to the Internet for continuous learning.

Here are seven steps we recommend taking as you research the options best suited to support your school district.

1 | NEEDS ASSESSMENT

Understanding which students lack access to the Internet or devices outside the classroom is critical to designing your strategy. Consider revisiting or designing a needs assessment. It helps you establish a baseline definition of connectivity, capture responses from all students, and gather local context. 

If you have data on this from a previous survey, we suggest looking back to see whether you can spot new trends or pieces of information.

If you need to administer a survey, we recommend providing multiple opportunities and ways to respond, keeping it simple, and leveraging pre-written questions.

2 | EVALUATE LOCAL CONTEXT

If you were to highlight an option for your community, what might prevent your community from taking advantage of that option?

Consider How Demographic Factors Could Impact Adoption

Do your students live primarily in rural, suburban, or urban areas? Service availability differs based on locale. Urban areas may have plentiful low-cost carrier options and cellular connections. Rural areas may have very few wired connections but strong cellular signals.

Furthermore, locale will impact the ability of students to travel to a central place for Internet access. If it is relatively easy for students to get to a central location or they live nearby, super hotspots (mobile routers) might be a viable option. Alternatively, if students live far apart and transportation is limited, personal hotspots might serve them better.

Many low-cost Internet options require customers to provide a credit card number that may be charged after a trial period. Since one of the biggest barriers to internet adoption is a high-monthly cost, it’s important to consider whether parents in your community can take on that additional cost after a free trial period.

This may also help you determine whether to recommend options that don’t require an upfront obligation.

A recent survey in Los Angeles Unified School District found that most providers required customers to provide either a Social Security number or a large deposit in order to start service. Despite the widespread availability of low-cost wireline service in neighborhoods such as Boyle Heights, South LA, and Watts, most families interviewed either did not feel comfortable providing their Social Security number or did not have one, resulting in very few sign-ups for the services despite the low cost advertised.

3 | FIND SERVICE PROVIDERS IN YOUR AREA

Several tools can help you look up service availability in your area.

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Our search tool uses ZIP code data to help school districts identify low-cost Internet options for students who don’t have a broadband connection at home.

Find Deals

Look up plans, pricing, and providers based on zip code.

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Use your zip code to research local offers.

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Your state’s PUC likely has a map to help identify viable options. Here’s a look at California’s state broadband map.

Service providers often include a lookup tool that customers can use to see if service is available in your area. For example, try entering a common zip code in your school district in AT&T’s lookup tool.

Local telcos and providers may or may not have lookup tools. Either way, their services can be identified through the state PUC, State Telecom Association, or by contacting the provider directly. For example, Nevada’s State Telecom Association has two maps identifying service options for each county.

4 | IDENTIFY LIFELINE OR COVID-19 SPECIFIC OFFERINGS

The Lifeline program, administered by the Universal Services Administrative Company (USAC) and overseen by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), provides subsidized access to broadband. Since 2016, the program has enabled communities across America to connect to broadband, and you can still apply for service.  The FCC also recently took precautions to ensure subscribers were not involuntarily unenrolled during the COVID-19 national emergency.

Many service providers are also offering low-cost or free options for communities in need during the COVID-19 pandemic. Some mirror the eligibility requirements of the Lifeline program, but others have broadened eligibility to ensure service is available to all in need.

Our Top National Picks

This program provides 2 months of free service ($9.95 per month thereafter). It  includes access to their network of Xfinity Hotspots. Comcast has also worked with school districts on sponsored service agreements to cover the monthly cost to connect their students. Explore our Guides to Comcast Internet Essentials or find out more here.

AT&T’s program also provides two months of free service ($5 or $10 per month thereafter, depending on speeds). They have waived all coverage fees during the crisis. Find out more here.

OTHER COMPETITIVE OFFERS

Be sure to check in with your local internet and telecom providers for special offerings as well. For example, Frontier Fundamental and Sonic also offer competitive offers for California residents. Frontier will include a free HP Chromebook and no annual contract, while customers who choose Sonic receive three free months of service, no data cap, and no annual contract.

For a full list of options across the country, download our Low-Cost Provider Matrix.

5 | EVALUATE 2-3 OPTIONS FOR YOUR COMMUNITY

Based on your research, your community, and service availability options, evaluate the offers at hand. Determine the factors that will enable the most students to get online, the cost of such options, and how quickly any additional necessary equipment (e.g., routers, modems) can be shipped.

Consider testing out the application process for yourself to discover any roadblocks your students’ parents might encounter when applying.

6 | CONSIDER HOW YOUR SCHOOL DISTRICT CAN HELP

Internet service options can be complicated, but school districts can help parents get started. Before COVID-19, Francis Marion School (Alabama) negotiated with AT&T to provide broadband service as part of a package to supply students with iPads.

If you are looking for a more immediate solution, some school districts are working with their school board to secure funding to cover the cost of unlimited data plans. Other school districts have partnered directly with providers. The strategies have varied – from pre-determining eligibility to covering the remaining cost of unpaid bills so that they can get service up quickly.

Tips and Guidelines

School districts should offer tips and advice to caregivers who sign up for a new service or even assign staff to help directly assist families with the process.

1. If you need to speak to a representative in another language, be sure to ask. Assistance is almost always available in other languages - especially at large companies.

2. Clearly state that you are only interested in the free/low-cost options available right now to help students complete their school work online.

3. If a customer service representative encourages you to sign up online and you do not have Internet access, insist that you want to sign up over the phone.

4. If you’re asked to provide a credit card number to participate in these promotions, clarify what you will be charged for and the amount. 

5. Always find out the exact date when you will be billed, record it. If needed, you can  cancel the special service before this date.

We urge you to consider both short-term solutions that can get students connected quickly to learning options and long term connectivity options.

7 | COMMUNICATE OPTIONS TO PARENTS AND STUDENTS

No matter the path you choose, it’s crucial to communicate the options. In the same survey at LA Unified, 41% of the families surveyed without broadband access did not know about the low-cost internet options available.

Since families that need connectivity the most in your school district may not have easy access to email or the web, consider communicating through the mail or in-person options. Food distribution programs are considered essential services in many areas, creating an opportunity to share additional school district and technology news with families.

EveryoneOn shares useful templates for flyers, talking points, and social media outreach strategies for school districts. West Contra Costa School District also created a simple matrix detailing connectivity options and the application process for their school community.

There are many ways to connect your students to the Internet during COVID-19 and begin to close the homework gap in the long term. Focus on assessing your community’s needs, researching available options, and clearly communicating options to ensure your students and families have the access they need to successfully continue learning.