In March, two days into spring break, Victoria Independent School District sent a note to parents telling them in-person classes were canceled indefinitely and all instruction would be moved online because of the rapid spread of COVID-19. Along with the notice, the South Texas district sent a survey to parents to gauge how many had reliable internet and computers at home that their kids could use for remote instruction. Shana Garcia, 38, reported that her 14-year-old daughter, Kayleigh Lee, had neither.
Garcia and Lee use the data plans on their phones to access the internet, but they don’t have broadband or dial-up at their apartment. Garcia, who works two nursing jobs to make ends meet, requested a laptop and mobile hot spot from Lee’s middle school. Shipping delays forced the district to repeatedly push pickup dates further and further out. By May, she still hadn’t received them, so she bought a computer for her daughter and tacked another $40 onto her monthly cellphone bill to get a hot spot. As a single parent supporting four children—Lee, two in college, and a fourth who lost a job as a bartender as a result of COVID-19—Garcia hadn’t budgeted for the expenses
“I had no choice,” Garcia said. “My kid had to get her homework done somehow.”
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Lee was one of an estimated 1.8 million Texas students who don’t have access to a computer or the internet at home. Some parts of rural Texas lack the cables and hardware that make broadband internet available. But even in parts of Texas where it is available, such as Victoria County, where Lee and Garcia live, many can’t afford it.
About nine thousand students–or 65 percent–in Victoria ISD qualify as “economically disadvantaged,” according to the Texas Education Agency. The county is one of the least connected in Texas. More than 14 percent of households don’t own a laptop, tablet, or smartphone, and another 18 percent have only a smartphone and no other type of computing device, according to U.S. Census Bureau data estimates from 2018. An estimated 30 percent of households in the county have no internet subscription at all, and another 10 percent have it only through a cellular data plan.
Victoria ISD relied on workarounds in the spring to address the lack of internet access: it distributed paper packets with learning materials and extended the Wi-Fi networks at several of its campuses so parents and students could park in school lots and connect from their cars. But some students without access had their semesters effectively cut short by more than two months after the sudden switch to online classes in the spring.
Now, as schools prepare for the possibility of some or all of their students continuing online classes this fall, administrators and state officials are taking steps to bridge the digital divide that became apparent in the spring. The state has allocated $200 million in Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act funds to help districts purchase hot spots and devices for economically disadvantaged students, a solution that would meet the immediate needs of most—though likely not all—Texas students.
Over the summer, Victoria ISD made another attempt to determine how many of its students needed devices for the upcoming school year, which begins August 18 for three weeks of virtual learning before in-person classes start in September. The district sent out a second technology survey, but administrators found it difficult to reach every family.
“We’re reaching a lot of families that maybe have one device and multiple children, so they have access but just not adequate access,” said Shawna Currie, a spokeswoman for Victoria ISD. “But we do feel that there is a portion of the population that we’re just not getting information from because of their lack of technology or internet.”
On July 20, the district posted a return-to-school update encouraging parents to purchase devices for their kids if they could. “One of our biggest concerns at this point is not having enough devices,” the district said in the update. “If you are able to purchase a device, it means someone less fortunate may have access to a device we have.”
To help close the gap, Victoria ISD requested 1,200 hot spots and 800 laptops, which are set to begin arriving in three and six weeks, respectively, from Operation Connectivity, a program that launched in May to negotiate discounts for Texas schools with Microsoft, Intel, T-Mobile, and other leading technology companies. Governor Greg Abbott and the TEA have devoted $200 million to the program, and district administrators believe that these new devices, in addition to the ones purchased in the spring, will meet the needs of most of its students.
Operation Connectivity will foot 50 percent of the bill for the devices and hot spots, and districts will be responsible for paying the other 50 percent. So far, districts across the state have requested more than 1 million computers and 480,000 hot spots. For Victoria ISD, its portion of the bill will likely exceed $200,000 and will come out of its general fund balance, which covers the majority of the district’s expenditures, including teacher salaries and emergency items.
Despite the massive funding effort, Alice Owen, executive director of the Texas K–12 CTO Council, an organization for chief technology officers at Texas schools, said it’s likely there will be some districts where needs are not fully met. Financial strain could prevent some ISDs from picking up 50 percent of the bill and taking part in Operation Connectivity, or limit the number of devices they can purchase through the program.
“Funding for schools has been going down tremendously over the past few decades and now it is finally out in the open how much our schools are in need of support,” Owen said. “This cannot just be a one-shot event. It needs to be a long-term, systematic, equitable infusion of funding for all schools, or districts will continue to be left behind.”
Gaby Rowe, project lead of Operation Connectivity, believes most districts in need will find a way to take advantage of the program. There are a number of funding sources districts can tap into to pay their portion of the bill, according to Karen Wilson, a research and policy associate with the Texas Association of School Business Officials. Districts with an existing bond program that calls for technology purchases can pull from that. Some districts might have leftover state funding for new textbooks and technology through their Instructional Materials Allotment, which is allocated every two years. Some high-needs campuses might be able to use federal title funds if technology resources have been identified in their campus improvement plans. And others, like Victoria ISD, can tap into their general fund balance.
Rowe said the one good thing COVID-19 has done is force Texans to recognize the “digital chasm” that exists not only among students, but throughout the population. “Getting the world to pay attention to connectivity and learning and the importance of the digital divide is a big silver lining,” Rowe said.
Though Lee struggled with her online classes last semester, Garcia plans to keep her home again this fall. Lee has asthma, as does her nineteen-year-old sister, who contracted COVID-19 in June and narrowly avoided having to be admitted to the hospital as she struggled to breathe. Garcia has once again requested a hot spot from the district.
For those students whose needs are not met by the program, Rowe insists that this is just the beginning. “Those are the districts where we really need to dig deeper into the analytics and figure out who else has need,” Rowe said. “This isn’t going to be it. We won’t be done. We’ve just got to figure out how to peel back the next layer now.”