The Lone Star State is a frontrunner in closing the K-12 digital divide; it prioritized the issue during the pandemic and built actionable solutions. In the Spring of 2020, Governor Abbott’s Operation Connectivity Task Force began work toward a mighty goal: ensuring every Texas student could engage in virtual learning with at-home connectivity and access to digital devices.
To tackle the digital divide and uniformly support its most disadvantaged rural, urban and low-income students, Texas focused on an important first step: the state –- as opposed to individual districts — coordinated the process to procure digital devices and connectivity. The Governor’s office and the Operation Connectivity Task Force included and worked closely with telecom providers as it built the new statewide procurement process. In the end, the state was able to free up districts to concentrate on the demands of teaching during a pandemic by taking a traditionally a cumbersome, expensive, and time-consuming task off their plates.
By negotiating competitive pricing on behalf of districts, the statewide procurement effort resulted in a 40-50% cost savings in devices and connectivity for districts and students. Between May and December 2020, Operation Connectivity supported the acquisition of more than 4.5 million devices for students, resulting in a 1:1 ratio of device access per student. Texas leveraged $900 million in CARES Act funding to fund this initiative, combining it with federal state and local sources.
“Bridging the digital divide for the Students of Texas became Mission Critical with the onset of COVID-19, enabling us to develop successful solutions with speed and at scale like never before.”
– Gaby Rowe, Principal, GROW Associates, LLC and Project Lead for Operation Connectivity
In the early days of the pandemic, students in Texas faced a multitude of broadband-related challenges, including lack of adequate high-speed connectivity in many areas and inability to afford internet plans.
Nearly 37% of all Texas schools statewide are in rural areas, which are less likely to have reliable, high-quality internet service offerings. Internet service providers are not motivated to cover rural areas where there are few residents because the price of building new infrastructure is high, which makes providing affordable pricing even more difficult. And in many areas, affordable pricing is necessary. Nearly half of all students who live in the state’s rural communities are also likely to qualify for Free and Reduced-Price Lunch (FRPL).
Students living in densely populated urban areas face a similar but slightly different challenge: service is available, but many families cannot afford it. For example, cities like Laredo and Brownsville, TX have regularly ranked in the top two of a list of the nation’s worst-connected cities.
In the past, districts individually procured their own services and devices in Texas, resulting in an uneven mix of students who were connected to the Internet and had access to digital devices. As the pandemic took hold in Texas, it shone a spotlight on these inequities.