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Tens of thousands in need of tech for online learning so they don’t have to choose between education and health

HOUSTON – The school year will look a lot different because of the coronavirus pandemic. Some parents have opted to send their kids back to the classroom while others have decided to keep them home.

But making the choice of virtual learning can be challenging for some families who don’t have access to a computer and internet. It’s a problem that many leaders are working to solve in the Houston area and around the country.

Several school districts, elected officials and companies like Comp-U-Dopt and T-Mobile have already invested millions in digital access programs that are needed to bridge the gap and prevent economically disadvantaged families from having to choose between education and safety.

KJ Minor is 5 years old. On Wednesday, he spent the afternoon learning about science in motion. He and his siblings will be through the new school year on their laptops.

“When we got these (laptops) it was a big help,” said KJ’s mother, Monique Minor. Her kids will attend Aldine and Humble Independent School Districts this year and she credits the schools for making sure students are prepared for virtual learning. She said if they hadn’t recieved devices from the school, she doesn’t think she could have gotten a laptop for everyone.

It’s a new era for parents amid the coronavirus pandemic but not all families have access to digital devices and the internet-something that’s much needed.

“I wish I could find word that was more enatic that critical because it is the essential bridge to learning,” said Gaby Rowe. She is the project lead of Operation Connectivity, a joint effort between Texas Gov. Greg Abbott’s Office, the Teacher’s Education Agency and the Dallas Independent School District.

“It was designed to ensure that every student in the state of Texas was fully connected by the 21-22 school year,” she said.

But Rowe’s passion for connecting families is not new. For 25 years she’s been working to bridge the digital divide.

“The definition after COVID means an absolute complete lack of access to information, to jobs, to learning, to work skills development and it has essentially gone from being a divide to be a chasm that has no bridge of crossing it,” she said.

Nearly 75% of students in the Houston Independent School District are economically-disadvantaged. That number is even higher in other Houston-area districts.

While school districts are stepping in to help, there are other resources available for those who need it. Colin Dempsey is the executive director of Comp-U-Dopt in Houston.

“Our mission is to provide technology access and education to youth, here in the Houston area,” Dempsey said.

The massive facility on Airline Drive is expanding and will double its class and office space.

Comp-U-Dopt refurbishes computers and gives them to students who don’t have them at home. So far, they’ve handed out more than double the number of devices that they typically give out each year. But it’s nowhere near enough.

“We do not have enough devices to give to every family right now. Families are still applying,” he said.

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo is also taking action. She pledged $32 million so kids in the county can have access to a computer and internet.

And while it may be a step in the right direction to bridge the digital divide—there’s still a long way to go.

“Not just for distant learning, but telehealth visits, for funding resources in the community, rent relief... You need a computer for these things,” Dempsey said.

A device is now an essential need, a digital connection, that’s key to making families and our community stronger.

There’s still a lot to cover when it comes to the digital divide and you can be a part of the solution. You can donate laptops and desktop computers that you’re not using anymore to Comp-U-Dopt. The company says there are still thousands of families who have registered to get a device.

To learn how to donate a device, click here.

What is Stronger Houston?

As Houston’s first television station and after more than 70 years of broadcasting, KPRC continues to work to serve our community. In our series “Stronger Houston,” we examine issues impacting people inequitably by race, gender, income, age, geography, religion, and other factors. These fault lines can create unfair divides in our community. We strive to not only raise awareness but also focus on solutions, resources available, and the people and groups working to reduce the disparity and ultimately create a stronger Houston.