TEXAS — While many Texas students have returned to school in person, some of the state's largest school districts are still holding classes online. While it may protect students and staff from COVID-19, the virtual model does not work for all families.
According to a state survey of educators earlier this year, 17 percent of Texas students lack access to high speed internet and 30 percent lack a dedicated and adequate learning device at home. State leaders tried to help close that gap before the school year started, in part, by launching Operation Connectivity. Through the statewide initiative, state officials invested more than $200 million in CARES Act funds to buy laptops, tablets, and WiFi hotspots. Last month, Gov. Greg Abbott announced state officials had procured more than 1 million personal devices and internet hotspots.
Capital Tonight's Reena Diamante spoke with Jennifer Harris, the state program director for Connected Nation Texas. The nonprofit aims to expand access, adoption and use of broadband. Harris said through the support of Texas Rural Funders, the organization has been able to do broadband mapping to show where broadband is and is not in the state, as well as conduct community engagements to understand the technology needs of local communities.
"At times when we ask a student, 'Do you have Internet access at home?' We get that the answer is, 'No.' Are we asking why they don't have internet access at home? Is it because they don't have a physical connection, or is it just because they don't have a subscription, because it's too costly, or there's another barrier in the way? I think we really need to get specific with the questions that we're asking, so that we can address those problems with different solutions. It's much different, if it's a cost issue, to solve a cost issue, then it is to build physical infrastructure," Harris said.
Harris said some of the biggest barriers to broadband adoption are cost and digital literacy.
According to Connected Nation, there are nearly 300,000 households in rural Texas that do not have physical access to the minimum speed considered to be broadband under the Federal Communications Commission's definition.
"For students that are less rural, more urban, a lot of those problems have probably been solved better. But some of our rural student across the state, where we don't have as good of a connectivity, I think we're probably still missing some of them. I do know that the goal of with Operation Connectivity is to have all students connected by next school year, as much was done this time around that could be done in a limited amount of time," Harris said.