DALLAS — This summer, there’s been a bus with a WiFi signal in a Fair Park parking lot. During the pandemic, that's one way for people without home internet to stay connected.
We need to do better.
These last months have shown us that a reliable connection to the internet is an essential connection to modern life. Especially for students who can't attend school without it.
The Texas Education Agency estimates between 400,000 to 900,000 students will need either a computer and/or internet access and they "need it immediately".
To meet the need, the State is drawing on $200 million dollars of federal coronavirus relief funds from the CARES Act. The money will match local school district funds, leading to the purchase of 1 million devices and 480,000 hotspots.
Education leaders are trying to bridge what's called the Digital Divide. It's made of two parts: a lack of connectivity to the internet and a lack of computers and tablets to log on with.
Let's zoom down to the local level and talk about those devices.
Last school year Richardson ISD purchased 39,500 devices at an estimated cost of $15.3 million. This year, they need another 10,000 devices at $3.9 million.
Prior to the start of the 2019-2020 school year, Grand Prairie ISD purchased 23,000 devices at $9.2 million with another 5,600 this year at $2.3 million more.
Plano ISD needed 28,000 at $8.4 million but made no new purchases this year.
And Dallas ISD needed 90,000 devices last year for an estimated $30 million and added 60,000 more this year for $20 million more.
And how about hotspots for kids who have no access to the internet?
Including the upcoming school year, Garland ISD needed 10,300, Arlington ISD required 11,400, Fort Worth ISD needed 16,000 and Dallas ISD students required 23,000 units.
But Dallas ISD superintendent Michael Hinojosa isn't stopping with just connecting kids to the internet. His goal is a connection with the whole family - and he wants that to happen by January 1.
“I think people can understand the argument that kids have to go to school at home now and we need to have that connection. How do you make the leap that the school district should be providing internet for their parents too?” I asked him.
“If not us, then who? We are a public entity, and this is a public good. Are we saying the family shouldn't have electricity? The family shouldn't have wastewater? That's the kind of commodity that this thing is,” he said.
As lawmakers in Washington negotiate a new round of emergency relief, House Democrats are proposing $1.5 billion for student computers and hotspots.
Democratic Congressman Marc Veasey (TX-33rd District) of Fort Worth also wants to subsidize the cost of an internet connection for families that don't have it.
“What are your concerns for school districts if they don't get additional support, financially, from Congress?” I asked.
“If they don't get additional support from Congress, I think you're going to see a lot of kids that are going to fall by the wayside,” Veasey said.
Right now, school districts are already shouldering the costs of protecting health and safety, feeding hungry kids stuck at home. Now they also must close the Digital Divide with unprecedented purchases of computers and hotspots just so kids can learn.
EDITOR'S NOTE: This story has been updated to reflect that Grand Prairie ISD purchased laptops prior to the start of the 2019-2020 school year.