Analysis: Shopping for students without schoolrooms, Texas is spending $250 million to narrow the digital divide

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Will Clarkston of Houston logged into online college preparatory classes from home in October 2011. As the coronavirus pandemic leaves more Texas public school students learning remotely, the state is trying to make sure they have the right devices and networks to continue their education from home. Credit: Michael Stravato for The Texas Tribune

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One of every six public school students in Texas does not have access to high-speed internet, and 30% of them don’t have a “dedicated and adequate learning device” — a laptop or tablet computer — according to Texas educators who answered a voluntary state survey earlier this year.

The survey is part of an urgent attempt to solve a problem that’s been festering for years — the digital divide between the haves and have-nots of the internet age.

And it helps explain the size of this back-to-school shopping order from the state of Texas: 716,000 laptops and tablets, 295,000 internet hot spots, priced a little over $250 million.

Public schools closed last spring as the coronavirus took hold of Texas. Students went home for online learning — if they had access to computers and the internet.

As the new school year begins, students have state leaders’ promise that they don’t have to physically go to school. Schools will have to provide in-person classes to those who want them, at some point, but state education officials are giving students and parents the option of online education during the pandemic.

The logistics are crazy, and with some schools already opening for classes, state and local education officials are scrambling to adjust. For in-person classes, they’re rearranging furniture and meal plans, transportation and janitorial services — the whole kit and caboodle. For online learning, there is a different dance: making sure students who aren’t being taught in school buildings have the right devices and networks to continue their education from home.

With a combination of federal, state and local funds, “Operation Connectivity” — a joint venture of the Texas Education Agency, the Dallas Independent School District and the governor’s office — is buying enough laptops, tablets and hot spots to gain access to virtual classrooms and online homework assignments for 80% to 90% of the state’s 5.5 million public school students.

They have $200 million from the federal CARES Act — coronavirus relief money that is being used to match local funds to buy access and computers for low-income students. For students who aren’t classified as economically disadvantaged, local public and charter schools can get the same education discounts on the equipment, but without the government subsidy.

This first order spends about $128 million of that and a similar amount from local sources, delivering hot spots to wirelessly connect students to the internet, along with laptops, Chromebooks and tablets students need for their work.

That’s a huge purchase, based on equipment prices and online rates negotiated by the Region 4 Education Service Center in Houston. The bulk order — a rush order — was compiled from the states' more than 1,000 school districts that submitted requests. Everything but the Chromebooks is supposed to be delivered within five weeks; it could take longer to get the high-demand Chromebooks to students.

“There are still a handful of districts that, even with all we’ve done, are still going to struggle for access,” says Melody Parrish, deputy commissioner of technology for the Texas Education Agency.

“We’ve made tremendous progress with this bulk purchase, but there will always be a gap,” she said. “I’m confident that the gap is significantly much, much smaller. We’ll have students who don’t have connectivity, but we are going to continue to work to until all students do have access.”

And this is just the hardware part of the equation. Schools are still figuring out how to deliver lessons, to take attendance and to make sure students remain engaged and up to date with their work.

After the school year is underway, the state will probably repeat its survey of districts, trying to find out how many students still don’t have the equipment and/or the internet access for online education. Connected Texas, a nonprofit working on broadband access and adoption in Texas, estimates 94% of the state’s households have access to at least a minimum level of broadband internet. That leaves about 500,000 predominantly rural households without. And only 65.6% of Texas households have actually adopted broadband. It’s one thing to have a line outside, another thing to subscribe.

“It’s not going to be one size fits all,” Parrish says. “It’s going to be multiple, multiple answers to that question.”

Region 4 Education Service Center has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.