BCBST News Center
July 29, 2020
In Hamilton County, approximately 28,500 students qualify for free and reduced lunch assistance, a measure the school system uses to determine financial need. Many of these students also don’t have internet access in their homes, which makes learning challenging, and COVID-19 has made it even more so.
While many students are participating in virtual learning and online classes to keep up with their schoolwork, those without internet access risk falling behind. When we spoke to Maureen Clark, a teacher at Soddy Daisy High School in Chattanooga, earlier this year, she touched on the challenges her students are facing as a result of the pandemic.
“Our school is rural, and there are some students who don’t have access to things at home. For some, school is the first time they’ve been exposed to the internet. The big thing is finding that safe option where they’re not going to the library or somewhere else. They’re staying put. We also want to find a solution where they’re not being penalized because they don’t have the advantages everyone else does,” she said.
The BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee Foundation is joining an innovative solution that will help bridge these gaps and keep Chattanooga-area students learning right from their homes. It’s called HCS EdConnect, and we’re investing $1 million to help make sure it’s successful.
What is HCS EdConnect?
HCS EdConnect is a partnership between Hamilton County Schools and Chattanooga-based utilities provider EPB.
With a combined $8.2 million in funding from partners like the BlueCross Foundation, HCS EdConnect will equip 28,500 students in the Chattanooga area with internet access at no cost.
Through the program, each qualifying student will receive:
- 100 Mbps home internet service from EPB – four times faster than typical educational support internet service
- Symmetrical internet speeds – same upload and download speeds
- No data caps
- Wi-Fi router
The internet service will be fast enough to accommodate video-based learning and other bandwidth-intensive learning applications, ensuring that students can participate in virtual classroom lessons and activities.
Hamilton County Schools will determine household eligibility and provide technical support services. When the program is in place, the average cost to the school system, which will serve as an EPB customer, will be just $2.50 per family per month.
Once rollout begins, EPB estimates it will have service to all students within the next several months. Each student will be guaranteed internet access for at least 10 years.
“We know the COVID-19 pandemic has made learning more difficult for both students and their families, especially those who don’t have fast, reliable internet access,” says Roy Vaughn, executive director of the BlueCross Foundation. “The HCS EdConnect initiative will help Hamilton County students keep learning in today’s unique environment — and beyond — and help address the societal inequities that make it difficult for families to thrive.”
More than educational benefits
While HCS EdConnect is an educational initiative at its core, its benefits don’t stop there. By providing internet access to these families, the program will allow area residents to stay connected to classmates, friends and loved ones.
“This investment in HCS EdConnect will equip students for the coming school year to keep them actively learning and developing skills while they’re at home,” Roy says. “But it will also provide opportunities for their families to connect and build relationships, which are critical to their mental and emotional well-being.”
Investing in the future
The partnership with HCS EdConnect is just the latest investment the BlueCross Foundation has made to prepare Tennessee students for future success.
Last year, the foundation announced the development of two BlueCross Technology Academies: one at Red Bank High School and one at Soddy Daisy High School. These intensive learning programs combine specialized curriculum and mentorship programs with BlueCross staff members to ready students for in-demand careers in the technology sector.
Each year, the foundation also awards the BlueCross Power of We Scholarship, which provides $10,000 each to at least three students who are pursuing careers in health care. The scholarship aims to bridge gaps in care and increase minority representation in the field to improve health outcomes for these groups.
The foundation has also supported career readiness programs like Chattanooga 2.0 and STEP-UP Chattanooga.
For more on HCS EdConnect, watch the announcement press conference.