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South TX School Districts Get $10.3M for Broadband, Devices

Laredo Independent School District and the United Independent School District will receive funding through the American Rescue Plan for broadband expansion, laptops and other devices for students and staff.

Closeup of a pile of yellow broadband cables with blue caps.
(TNS) — Continuing to address the digital divide, Rep. Henry Cuellar announced Friday, Nov. 18 over $10.3 million in combined funds for the Laredo Independent School District and the United Independent School District for providing laptops, broadband connections and other devices for students and staff.

"The pandemic highlighted that Internet access is essential for modern day education. Yet, too many children don't have the Internet access at home that they require for nightly school work," Cuellar said. "This funding will help ensure that every student has after-school access to the technology they need to do their homework.

"This is the largest effort in our nation's history by the federal government to help address the digital divide that has been created in our education system and I will continue to support programs that make sure every child has access to the tools they need to receive a quality education in today's digital age."

The funding was secured through the Federal Communication Commission's Emergency Connectivity Fund which was created as part of the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021. The $7.171 billion program helps provide tools and services needed for remote learning for schools and libraries. It has provide devices and connectivity to an estimated 15 million students since launching last year.

"We know education is the key. Yes it is expensive, and yes we hear from taxpayers that they don't want to pay more for education or for city services," Laredo Mayor Pete Saenz said. "This is why we depend heavily on federal funding and state funding as well. Education is key. We have to educate our students and continue educating adults as well. It comes down to these monies, and it comes down these days to broadband connectivity."

In Friday's press conference held at the UISD boardroom, Saenz thanked Cuellar for his effort in securing the funds for the Laredo school districts and shared the related nickname he came up with for the congressman.

"He has done so much for this community, and he proves it over and over again," Saenz said. "I call him the Cheerios guy because there are a lot of zeros behind all of those checks that he brings. Every time I see him, there is usually a check alongside. Henry, I can't thank you enough for all you've done for this community over and over again."

Because LISD previously used recovery funds from the COVID-19 pandemic for hotspots and laptops, most of the $10.3 million announced Friday was for UISD. LISD will use the $554,400 it received to benefit its 22,000 students by purchasing 2,100 hotspots and paying for the monthly fees.

LISD executive director of technology services Ambrose Gomez said the funding will help them continue their efforts that started during the pandemic in 2020.

"We had to deal with taking quick action, working with the board of trustees, our federal programs department and our finance department to make sure we did everything we could in support of our children," he said. "That is our goal as a community and most school districts. We want to do everything in our power to make them successful, and I think we accomplished that."

UISD will use the $9,746,110 it received to benefit its 43,000 students in a variety of ways. It will spend $6,804,624 purchasing 21,600 laptops for students and another $935,650 purchasing 3,000 laptops for teachers and support staff. It will also spend $1,871,325 for 11,000 hotspots, $63,999 for 40 Wi-Fi routers and $70,512 for equipping buses with Wi-Fi.

"Our whole world changed because of the pandemic. The biggest challenge we had was how do we provide instruction to all these kids from home? What really saved us was our motto 'United for Children' because it's a huge team," UISD assistant superintendent for technology Hector J. Perez said. "Nobody complained about staying late, working weekends and finding a solution. We transformed the old classroom that we all know into a digital classroom. It was a huge challenge. Those are projects that take six months to a year, and we had to get it done in a week or two weeks."

Perez discussed how the struggles continued beyond the early days of the pandemic. His department received over 3,200 phone calls in a three-day span in August 2020, and he singled out one particularly memorable one.

"I'll never forget the first day in August 2020," he said. "We got 3,200 calls over three days. I had to troubleshoot with a 4 year old and tell them what to do because the mom was so afraid of technology. Our team did what it had to do."

While all the purchases are important for the district, Perez was especially enthusiastic about equipping the buses with Wi-Fi and the opportunities that creates with some students spending over an hour on the bus.

"Think how cool it is that you can use your Wi-Fi device to do your homework," he said. "You have to keep these kids engaged. An hour for them is an eternity. They have to be engaged."

UISD superintendent David H. Gonzalez thanked Cuellar for helping secure the funds and stressed the importance of now putting it to good use.

"I can assure you as part of the schools at United ISD that our kids are using the devices," he said. "We have weekly meetings and do informal walkthroughs, and the technology that is going on in our schools is magnificent. It is happening. It's one thing to get the funding and another to get the devices, but the proof is in the pudding."

Cuellar was happy to see the federal funding going to the local school districts but expressed frustration at more not already being done at the state level.

"This money will come from the federal government and monies that got sent to the state. I'm hoping the state uses the money correctly, because if you recall they had a deficit. Now they have a $28 billion surplus," Cuellar said. "Part of it is because of oil and gas, and I support oil and gas, but the surplus is also the state did a good job of keeping a lot of the federal dollars and didn't use it during the pandemic.

"Even the monies we sent in, we took out their 10 percent and they still kept part of it which is very unfortunate. The state should have sent the monies down to you all like they were supposed to. They have the monies now, and I hope they use it well."

©2022 the Laredo Morning Times (Laredo, Texas). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.