Applications open for LPSS-funded in-home internet service; part of bid to close digital gaps

By Katie Gagliano

The Lafayette Parish School System and Love Our Schools opened the parish’s first-ever in-home internet assistance program to applications Monday, one move in a broader plan to make the internet more accessible to all students.

The in-home internet assistance program is open to families with LPSS students who attend a community eligibility provision (CEP) school or who qualify for free or reduced price lunch, and haven’t had home internet access since at least July 1, an LPSS release said.

“Since many of our students will engage in some form of virtual learning for this school year, it is incumbent upon us to do all that we can to help that learning and growth continue and thrive while at home — ensuring internet access for all of our students is a huge step in that direction,” Superintendent Irma Trosclair said in a prepared statement.

Ryan Domengeaux, CEO of the William C. Schumacher Family Foundation, said nearly 300 families had applied for the program as of Friday morning. Applications are open until Oct. 30 and can be submitted online or via a paper form; applications were sent home with students this week and forms in both English and Spanish forms are available.

Domengeaux said the project involved months of virtual meetings and phone calls between internet provider partners Cox Communications and LUS Fiber, the school system, Love Our Schools partners and others. It was “daunting but encouraging at the same time,” he said.

Publicly funded internet targeted to help children in schools is a new concept locally and there are few similar programs nationally, so the public-private partners are continuing to build the blueprint as the project develops, he said.

“We’re very proud of our community. To have the whole community rise up in support of the school district and the children in our district is a very proud moment for us, especially now that this has come to fruition and it’s providing opportunities to those families who didn’t have the resources or the connectivity,” Domengeaux said.

The service was funded as part of a $1.5 million school board allocation in August, which pulled funds from the capital projects reserve fund and from CARES Act dollars. Domengeaux praised the school system’s willingness to embrace the project and administrators’ flexibility adapting their bureaucratic approach to expedite the process.

The internet will be filtered, which means only approved sites can be accessed using the network, in accordance with an opinion from the Louisiana Attorney General’s Office.

Todd Mouton, executive director of the Pugh Family Foundation, said applications will be submitted to students’ base schools and evaluated by school staff. The applications will then be escalated up the chain to a team at LPSS’s central office who will confirm the family’s lack of internet connection with Cox and LUS Fiber, then will coordinate internet hook-ups.

Families will not have a choice of internet provider; that will be determined by the Link & Learn team, the LPSS release said.

In an agreement signed by Superintendent Irma Trosclair on Sept. 11, LUS Fiber and the school system laid out an agreement to provide 25 Mbps of filtered wireless internet service to each household at a cost of $19.99 per household per month with a one-time $375 installation fee per household, the contract said. The district’s contract with Cox Communications was not available as of Friday.

Domengeaux and Mouton said estimated need is based on a May LPSS survey that showed approximately 7,000 students in 5,400 homes were without home internet access. LPSS and the Love Our Schools teams have mapped the survey respondents to compare submitted applications and households potentially in need to ensure the message gets to every student.

“Going forward the internet is essential to student success and homework and projects. I think everybody sees the textbook of the present is an internet connection in many cases,” Mouton said.

There’s not a strict timeline for when crews will begin setting up internet service. Mouton said LUS Fiber and Cox were made aware of the anticipated demand over the summer and began setting aside needed equipment like routers, but some equipment will likely need to be ordered.

The organizers are also hoping for a strong base of applications before installations begin to maximize efficiency; the goal is to allow installers to do several homes in one neighborhood at a time to reduce the number of work calls. The system will also become more efficient as more households apply and the school system and communications partners learn how to streamline the process, Mouton said.

The contract term with LUS Fiber is set to terminate May 31, per the agreement. Domengeaux said that may be extended to meet continued need since the end of the pandemic is indeterminate. Additionally, no one wants to see students’ internet accessibility regress once the pandemic does resolve, he said. “I think it’s safe to say everyone is open to making sure we don’t go in reverse after making so much progress. There are no commitments to that yet but I think the general consensus of folks is that we’re going to continue to do what’s right to bridge the digital divide,” Domengeaux said.