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Texas Education, Tech Leaders Team to Close Digital Divide

With $200 million from the state and the same amount matched by Texas’ school districts, an initiative plans to provide students with computers and Internet service for online learning before the school year begins.

by Dwight Silverman, Houston Chronicle / July 29, 2020
Slow or unreliable internet access is a reality for millions of Americans. ben dalton/Flickr, CC BY-SA

(TNS) — With $200 million from the state and the same amount matched by Texas’ school districts, an initiative plans to provide needy students with computers and internet service for online learning before the school year begins.

Dubbed Operation Connectivity, the plan aims to provide 1 million laptops, along with Apple iPads and 480,000 internet WiFi hotspots from all three of the major cellular providers, with the state handling the purchasing and local school districts sharing the costs.

The logistics were put together by the Region 4 Education Service Center, Mayor Sylvester Turner’s office and Gabriella Rowe, the former director of the Ion, the centerpiece of the city’s drive to build a robust technology and startup community.

Rowe resigned abruptly in late May, saying she wanted to spend her time helping with the city’s pandemic response, with an emphasis on education.

An estimated 1.8 million students Texas were unable to take part in distance learning that became the norm when the coronavirus lockdowns began in March because they lacked either broadband internet access and/or computers.

It’s a problem that the state’s school districts are facing again. Many districts in the Houston area and around the state plan to start the academic year with virtual class sessions, again requiring that students be able to access classes and assignments remotely. Others will offer hybrid in-class and online instruction, particularly for those parents who don’t want to risk their child’s exposure to the virus.

According to the Texas Education Agency, recent surveys of parents show 50 percent will have students stay home when school starts, and 30 percent of those students don’t have access to a broadband internet connection or devices suitable for taking online classes.

Rapid response

The initiative came together in just a few weeks, Rowe said. The city of Houston, Region 4 Education Service Center, the Texas Education Agency and Gov. Greg Abbott all played a role in pushing the plan forward.

What began as an attempt to solve the problem for the 2021-22 school year accelerated when Rowe and the Houston-area Region 4 Education Service Center came to the state with a proposal to do bulk buys of the laptops, hotspots and internet access in time for the start of the current school year.

“This was originally a task force designed to come up with a strategy to do all this next year,” Rowe said. “But when we came to them with this plan, they saw we could do this immediately. Operation Connectivity pivoted from doing strategy to doing bulk buying and distribution. Huge kudos to them for having the political will to do it.”

The vendors involved read like a who’s who of tech.

Under the plan, Dell, HP, Lenovo and Apple are providing hardware at deep discounts, which will be purchased by the state. T-Mobile, AT&T and Verizon are providing hotspot devices that turn connections on their cellular networks into WiFi networks that can be used in homes, along with unlimited, full-speed data plans.

Also involved were Microsoft and Intel, with the latter instrumental in getting the computer makers and telecommunications companies to come to the table.

Operation Connectivity began at the Dallas Independent School District as a task force to study the problem of students not having computers and broadband internet access for remote learning. At the same time, the state was also exploring solutions, and picked up on the DISD task force. Abbott used the Operation Connectivity name and brought in DISD Superintendent Michael Hinojosa to chair a statewide group in early May.

Meanwhile, in Houston, the technology subcommittee of Turner’s Health Equity Response Task Force had been looking at the problem, which was acute. The Chronicle reported in April that tens of thousands of students in the Houston area had not yet connected to school networks to begin online learning, and that hotspots to provide internet access were in short supply.

Rowe, who co-chaired the subcomittee, reached out to contacts at Microsoft and Intel, which had both been heavily involved in the mayor’s efforts to turn Houston into a so-called “smart city,” in which connected technology is applied to traffic, infrastructure and safety. Pam Wells, the executive director at Region 4, said she was appointed to the mayor’s group in April. Region 4 serves 48 school districts and 39 public charter schools in the Houston area.

Intel’s Elizabeth Haines McGee, who also guided Rowe and Region 4 through the negotiations with the hardware vendors, said it was critical that both the internet access and computers be good enough to handle year-round distance learning.

“In the past, programs like this used hand-me-down equipment,” McGee said. “We were not going to do it that way, we were going to do it the right way.”

Intel also brought in T-Mobile, who agreed to provide unlimited access that would not be throttled if too much data was used. Rowe said the other wireless carriers agreed to match that. Both Verizon and AT&T confirmed their participation in Operation Connectivity.

Dr. Keisha Taylor, T-Mobile’s national education administrator, said the carrier also helped bring laptop makers to the table, along with its carrier competitors.

“We made sure (Rowe) was receiving the best pricing from companies like Lenovo, and make sure she had the right contacts,” Taylor said.

When the TEA and the statewide Operation Connectivity task force heard what Region 4 had pulled together, they asked Rowe and Region 4 to expand the process statewide. Region 4 is now overseeing the the bulk buying and distribution of hardware and internet access to Texas’ other regional education service centers.

The program should help districts such as Aldine ISD, which has a large percentage of disadvantaged students. Tamika Alford-Stephens, chief business and operations officer, estimated that 30 percent of students have no access to WiFi in their homes.

“There are some communities in the district that don’t even have the infrastructure to provide broadband to homes,” she said.

Alford-Stevens said the district has been working since the spring to provide laptops and hotspots, but supply chain shortages were an issue. And there has been a funding gap that Operation Connectivity will help fill.

“I’m just excited to see so many entities come together and be responsive in such as short amount of time,” she said. “And I am grateful that we are a part of that process.”

©2020 the Houston Chronicle. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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