After buying more than 4.5 million computers and hotspots for students over the last several months, Texas education officials have a new goal: making free at-home internet available to every public school student beyond the pandemic.

The ambitious target, laid out in interviews and statements by education leaders, suggests Texas plans to ride momentum building across the nation to close the so-called digital divide. The issue has come into stark view as many students shifted to online-only classes when the novel coronavirus began sweeping the country last March.

While many details of the state’s plans remain in the works, Texas Education Agency officials said they are building new systems, negotiating with internet service providers and starting to work with legislators to provide at-home broadband to more than 1 million students who currently lack access. State leaders hope to begin connecting some children and families as early as August.

“It’s totally doable, and the fact that Texas is talking about it is amazing,” said Evan Marwell, the founder and CEO of EducationSuperHighway, a national nonprofit working to improve at-home technology access for students. “This is a unique opportunity that we have never had before. If we don’t capitalize on it, my suspicion is we’ll never have it again.”

The plan would require hundreds of millions of dollars in local, state and federal funds each year — an investment that Texas legislators and members of Congress have not made in the past. School districts also would have to shoulder greater responsibility for students’ internet service needs.

The payoff, however, could prove monumental for children and their families.

Students lacking at-home internet are less likely to complete numerous academic tasks, such as accessing learning materials, completing homework and finishing college applications. Given that students from lower-income families are more likely to live in homes without broadband internet, the digital access divide makes it harder for many students to match their wealthier classmates’ success, education and technology experts said.

“The learning gap we had before the pandemic was real, and the learning gap we have coming out of the other side is exponentially worse,” said Gaby Rowe, project lead for Operation Connectivity, a TEA-backed coalition leading the effort to get students connected at home. “We have to make sure solutions are put in place that can last for many years.”

State officials envision adult family members using the at-home internet, giving them access to jobs programs, telemedicine services and other web-based tools.

Spurred by the switch to virtual classes because of the coronavirus pandemic in March 2020, education leaders across the country have scrambled to outfit students with technology.

Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath said the state’s signature pandemic technology initiative, made through Operation Connectivity, resulted in the purchase of 3.6 million computer devices and 1 million hotspots that were distributed to districts. Local school leaders also bought computers and hotspots.

Hotspots provided a vital, immediate service during the pandemic, but education and technology leaders said at-home broadband internet — the kind that traditionally requires a wall connection, modem and router — is faster and more reliable.

How it would work

State officials estimate about 800,000 of Texas’ 5.3 million children attending public school live in homes equipped for broadband, but their families cannot afford the service or choose not to get it for various reasons.

In Houston ISD alone, surveys taken early in the pandemic suggested at least 14 percent of the district’s nearly 200,000 students lacked at-home internet. The figure likely was an undercount, given that only 27 percent of families responded and the survey primarily was delivered online.

“If we can get (the service) to $10 a month, and the school districts then provide it, you can just say, ‘You enrolled in the school district. Here’s your internet,’” Morath said.

Another 350,000 Texas students, mostly in rural areas, reside in homes without a broadband hook-up. State lawmakers and Gov. Greg Abbott said they plan to prioritize expansion of broadband infrastructure during the ongoing legislative session.

In recent weeks, Texas Education Agency and Operation Connectivity officials described nascent plans for how the state could help deliver at-home broadband to children already capable of accessing it.

To start, state officials hope to negotiate with about 150 internet service providers operating in Texas to get fixed, regional prices on broadband service for students and their families. Rowe said price points remain in flux, though Morath recently floated the potential for $10 per month.

School districts choosing to participate would identify students in need of at-home broadband and buy service for them from internet providers, using the state-negotiated rate.

Families would not have to pay any fees, provide any personal information, or risk falling behind on bills and hurting their credit scores. Their biggest responsibility: arranging an installation date and time.

The approach mirrors plans employed in recent months or under development in districts and states across the country. Chicago Public Schools, for example, launched a similar at-home broadband initiative in the summer of 2020, connecting more than 50,000 of its 340,000 students.

“This has always been a long-term goal of ours, and the pandemic has allowed us to accelerate that,” said Julia Fallon, executive director of the State Educational Technology Directors Association.

State officials also expect some students who move often, such as homeless children, would continue to receive wireless hotspots that better fit their circumstances.

Texas officials have not yet said whether they would give school districts money to pay for students’ at-home internet — but education technology experts expect many states will tap ample federal stimulus money to jump-start their plans.

A hard sell?

Texas schools received $6.7 billion from the first two relief packages, with another $12 billion expected to arrive from the stimulus bill signed into law Thursday by President Joe Biden. State legislators and TEA officials still are debating how to spend nearly all of the money.

State Sen. Larry Taylor, a Friendswood Republican who chairs the Senate Education Committee, said there was “no question” that federal stimulus money could help launch Texas’ connectivity efforts.

“I think this is exactly the kind of thing they intended” for stimulus funds, Taylor said.

While buzz about the state’s plan is trickling out, many key players remain mum or in-the-dark about the budding effort.

Several of Texas’ most prominent internet service providers did not respond to requests for comment, declined to speak about their involvement or offered brief statements. Many providers, including AT&T and Comcast, already offer heavily discounted broadband service to lower-income families.

“We support the goals of the Texas Education Agency’s proposed program, are hopeful that we will be able to participate and look forward to reviewing the program rules,” said a spokesman for Lumen Technologies Inc., home to internet provider CenturyLink.

In Dallas ISD, which helped launch Operation Connectivity in the pandemic’s early days, Chief Technology Officer Jack Kelanic said “I really don’t have much insight” on the state’s long-term internet plans, though he lauded the goal of connecting all students to fixed broadband.

“It is early in the game, too early to get too excited about how some of these things may work out,” Kelanic said. “But I am optimistic and encouraged.”

For his part, Taylor conceded he still wants “to get more detail, more of a timeline” for the state’s effort.

While organizing a statewide system could prove challenging, one big hurdle to connecting students likely will be getting families onboard, EducationSuperHighway’s Marwell said. In Chicago, for example, some parents and guardians do not believe the service will be free or struggle to navigate the sign-up process.

“I believe they can get the program set up and available to all those students by August,” Marwell said. “But it’s going to take a lot of work and time to find out who needs it and get them signed up.”

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