As Texans around the state stay at home for an extended period of time to help stem the spread of COVID-19, school districts are having to get creative as they work to ensure students are still learning and having their non-academic needs met. Nowhere is this more of a challenge than in rural Texas, where access to Wi-Fi is more limited than it is in the state’s major metropolitan areas.
“Our rural school districts are still working,” said Texas Rural Education Association Executive Director Bill Tarleton. “We won’t let anyone fall through the cracks.”
Providing lunches and ensuring connectivity are high priorities right now, Tarleton said.
He estimates that about 20 percent of rural schoolchildren in Texas do not have Wi-Fi access at home or of their own. Some drive to their schools with their computers and sit in a parking lot to do their homework because that is the only place they can access Wi-Fi. Others who have neither Wi-Fi nor computers continue to learn the “old fashioned” way and are picking up printed packets of their assignments from school.
“We will absolutely get through it,” said Tarleton. “Communities will rise up and help each other.”
In an effort to maintain broadband access for all Texans, the four members of the Texas Cable Association are opening their Wi-Fi hotspots to all. They have pledged to not cut off broadband or telephone service to any customers, even those unable to pay their bills, and to waive late fees incurred because of economic circumstances related to the coronavirus pandemic.
Additionally, for a limited time, cable providers around the state are offering free or reduced-cost broadband and Wi-Fi service to households with college or K-12 students who currently do not have subscriptions. Comcast has taken the extra step of pausing its data caps for 60 days to provide all customers unlimited data for no additional charge.
As in the rural areas, the state’s more urban school districts are launching online portals to stay connected to their students, providing backpacks with printed materials for at-home learning and connecting students to free meals.
Starting this week, the Houston Independent School District, Texas’ largest school district, is launching HISD @ H.O.M.E., which is short for Home-based Online Mobile Education. According to HISD’s website, the new distance learning plan includes curriculum by grade level and subject matter that is designed to maintain productive instruction for students using computers, laptops, iPads and other tablets, or smartphones. Similar efforts are in use in Austin, Dallas, Fort Worth and San Antonio, El Paso and elsewhere.
Last week, Gov. Greg Abbott ordered all schools in Texas to close their doors and move education online until mid-April. There is wide speculation that order will be extended. Tarleton said schools are preparing for that possibility but have not yet received any official word.
A statement on the Texas Education Association website provides a good characterization of the current situation Texas educators are facing.
“We’re grateful for the leadership of superintendents across the state during this difficult time. We know you are making very difficult decisions with imperfect information. These decisions are based on local context and vary from one school system to the next. TEA wants to provide support to you all when making these difficult decisions, and help you communicate those decisions. We will do our best to support you but will undoubtedly make mistakes along the way. We’re all in this together.”
As for providing connectivity in rural Texas, Tarleton said Texas isn’t yet there because the legislature has not appropriated money for it.
“Hopefully, they will now,” he said.