Each of us has had to adapt to a new reality in the era of COVID-19, and that reality looks different for each region, city, and even neighboring households across Texas. While some communities have been able to lean successfully into virtual learning, others have seen teachers travelling from front porch to front porch to collect paper learning packets. This is the reality of the digital divide.
Last legislative session, the state made tremendous strides toward equity in public school funding, but now we are faced with another immense challenge: equitable access to connectivity. At least 1.8 million Texas students lack either a device or access to high-speed internet, yet digital connectivity remains an essential tool for success in the 21st century. This is not a new problem, but it’s one that we can no longer ignore.
Texas PTA’s mission is to make every child’s potential a reality, and educational equity is a longstanding priority. Whether a student lives in an urban center or on a farm in the Panhandle, they should have access to the necessary tools to participate fully in their own education.
In an effort to better understand the challenges that accompany connectivity and virtual learning, Texas PTA surveyed parents to learn more. These stories are illustrative of the challenges many families faced:
“Even with free hotspots from school, public library and even trying to use hotspot over phones for laptop use, not all of our devices would work throughout the house. Sometimes, I would take my laptop close to Dallas North Tollway while businesses were closed to get a better signal but then I couldn't help the kids at home.”
“We do not have access to the internet in our home. We were given one chrome book from the school district for both children to share. My kids would have to try and use their hotspots on their cell phone or I would have to take them to their aunt’s house after I got off work to attempt to complete assignments.”
“We experienced hundreds of drops throughout the day.”
On Aug. 20, Gov. Abbott allocated $200 million in federal CARES ACT funds to match $200 million in local school district funds to address immediate gaps in digital access. Texas PTA applauds the governor for taking this important first step to address these immediate needs. TEA estimates that more than half a million e-learning devices and nearly 500,000 hotspots will be purchased with these dollars. But even with this investment, there will likely still be hundreds of thousands of students who lack reliable internet access.
Connectivity is not just about the ability of some students to turn in their homework online versus those who cannot. It is about access to opportunity for all Texas students: the opportunity to earn online dual credit at the local community college; to interview for a job via video-conference; to search for online video tutorials; or to access college applications and complete FAFSA forms.
As the 87th Texas Legislative Session approaches, Texas will face some large hurdles. The economy is in recession and the state’s budget will be tight. How will we, legislators and citizens, act? Will we set aside this very real need for a day when the state has more money to spend, or will we make digital connectivity a priority for all students, regardless of their home address?
We believe the time is now to make the commitment to prioritize statewide, affordable connectivity so that all our students have access to the tools, and more importantly, to the opportunities to be successful both inside and outside the classroom.
Every student, every opportunity, everywhere.
Suzi Kennon is the Texas PTA president. Texas PTA is the largest child advocacy association in the state with over 523,000 members who champion for Texas students and schools.