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Cornyn: To continue essential education, we must bridge the digital divide

The following article was published on September 15, 2020, by Stephenville Empire Tribune.

Temperature checks in the drop-off lane. Tape cordoning off every other desk. Teachers trying to learn new students’ names through facemasks and six feet of distance. A grid of classmates participating virtually on a projector screen. The school year just started, and already it’s unlike any other.

I visited with students, teachers, and administrators across Texas recently to see how Texans are adapting to school during the coronavirus pandemic. As Lubbock ISD Superintendent Dr. Kathy Rollo told me, teachers are essential. Education is essential. But new precautions to keep children from catching and spreading the virus don’t come easy, and they definitely don’t come cheap.

Congress has already passed more than $30 billion in emergency relief for education, including $2.6 billion for Texas. That funding has allowed Canyon ISD, for example, where 92 percent of students have chosen to attend in-person, to bolster their supply of cafeteria tables so students can eat lunch six feet apart. In Odessa, they’ve used CARES Act funding to enhance microphones in classrooms to pick up teachers’ lessons through their facemasks. Millions of dollars have secured personal protective equipment, sanitizer, and cleaning supplies.

The transition to virtual learning presents more new challenges, and exacerbates old ones. In places like Ector County, where Superintendent Dr. Scott Muri shared that one-third of students don’t have ready access to broadband, learning from home may not be a viable option. Forty-four percent of households within the Pharr-San Juan-Alamo ISD don’t have broadband subscriptions. And across the state, it’s estimated that roughly 30 percent of Texas’ 5.5 million public school students don’t have the proper technology for online learning. Despite the best efforts of local officials, the divide is most stark in Texas’ rural counties and in the Rio Grande Valley.

What we used to call the “homework gap” has blown into a full-on learning deficit, knocking students who were already at a disadvantage down a few more rungs. We must bridge the digital divide. Texas students – and their families – are counting on us.

With the federal funds from Congress, state officials have spent $200 million on computers and home internet to enable remote learning, and school districts have targeted their CARES Act funds toward their students’ specific connectivity needs. For instance, Lubbock ISD used part of their nearly $8 million to support Park and Learn WiFi Campuses for 2,500 users each week, along with 1,200 WiFi hot spots for students. In Waco, administrators purchased 1,725 computers and 1,100 mobile hot spots for connectivity. And Harlingen’s school district has used CARES Act funds to ensure their more than 18,000 students have both a device and internet access.

Public libraries, which have access to $50 million for digital connection through the CARES Act, are also promoting connectivity. Gatesville and Tom Green County are two of the many public libraries in Texas that have recently received funds to install local WiFi hot spots.

Among schools, libraries, and local governments, the demand for these grants is high. Every day that passes without statewide broadband access, Texas children could fall further behind.

A bipartisan fix I’ve authored will provide Texans with emergency broadband relief. The ACCESS Internet Act would provide $1.3 billion for K-12 schools to invest in devices and internet services for distance learning, with $260 million specifically targeting rural schools. It would also direct $200 million in federal funds through local libraries for WiFi hot spots to reach more families, building on the millions of federal dollars already used for this purpose.

Achieving universal broadband access will take time, and we need to get started now. While I work on drafting even broader legislation on broadband access, I’m fighting to include the ACCESS Internet Act in the next coronavirus relief bill, and ensure all students have access to broadband.

With the arrival of the pandemic, we saw internet access go from a luxury to a necessity almost overnight. To continue essential education for Texas’ children and protect them from the dangers of the coronavirus, we must invest in universal connectivity, and fast. Texas’ next generation depends on it.