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We Must Close the Digital Divide in the RGV to Keep Our Students Learning

The following opinion piece was published in the Rio Grande Guardian on April 4, 2020 

As our nation grapples with the unprecedented COVID-19 crisis, school systems and higher education institutions are required to quickly adapt to online learning without knowing how long this will continue.

This change is a challenge for many educators and learners under normal circumstances, but especially so during these exceptionally stressful times.

The scale of adoption for educators and learners affected by this urgent switch to remote, online learning raises issues about equity and access. In particular, it draws attention to Texas’ troubling digital divide that disproportionately affects rural areas in our state, like here in the Rio Grande Valley. According to a report by Connected Nation, “Rural Broadband: A Texas Tour,” 1.8 million Texans, most of them in rural areas, don’t have high-speed internet access.

Under the Connect America Fund, The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) authorized $1.5 billion to expand broadband access to thousands of underserved areas in the U.S. This initiative is estimated to reach less than two percent of Texans who need broadband access more urgently. Additionally, the FCC authorized nearly $76.7 million over the next 10 years to broadband providers in the Lone Star State to provide support and services to 89 Texas counties, from the Gulf Coast to the Panhandle.

These steps in the right direction are welcome. But in light of the COVID-19 crisis, the Rio Grande Valley can’t afford to wait two years much less ten for adequate broadband access. For all Texans to fully participate in society, broadband internet access is a necessity now.

U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, hit the nail on the head when he said about access to broadband, “It’s an issue of safety, of education and health for rural Texans.”

At WGU Texas, a pioneer of online education, 17 percent of our students are from rural areas. While we want to serve more rural residents, we are limited in our ability to do so until broadband internet is expanded to all corners of the state. With the expansion of broadband access to these areas, we can offer a practical, convenient and cost-effective solution via online education, and a pathway to higher educational attainment.

Since World War II, higher education has been the surest pathway to opportunity and social mobility in the United States. At WGU Texas, we have seen firsthand that improving the quality of, and access to, education increases the opportunity for those who complete our programs. But we can’t accomplish this alone: we need help from partners in the Rio Grande Valley and communities across Texas. Our goal in advocating for the expansion of broadband access is to improve education and economic opportunities for Texans by making educational attainment as accessible and affordable as possible, filling the gaps in high-demand fields.

At WGU Texas, we believe in education without boundaries, and we believe in doing our part to remove barriers to any Texans seeking to fulfill their potential. Please join us in calling for expanded broadband access for rural Texas by contacting your state representatives in the Texas legislature. Together, we can create a new gateway to opportunity for Texas families and communities.

Editor’s Note: Dr. Steven E. Johnson, the author of the above guest column, is the chancellor of WGU Texas, a state-endorsed, nonprofit, accredited university, and an appointed member of Governor Abbott’s Broadband Development Council.

Editor’s Note: The above guest column is the first in a three-part series about the digital divide in the Rio Grande Guardian. Part Two, focusing on the work of IDEA Public Schools, will be featured in our next edition.