As Texas educators redesigned teaching on the fly in the spring of 2020 as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, the frustration level among educators and parents was high. For families there was the stress of being together 24/7 along with the day-to-day issues of schooling: homework, inconsistent internet and, in many cases, no internet at all, establishing a routine for home-school, and too many more to count.
The stories educators can tell about the challenges remote learning presented for them and their students. Talk about blended learning – schools became responsible for producing paper packets with lessons for those without internet or computers and online lessons for students with internet connectivity.
Many parents and educators can tell of slow internet where at times students might watch a screen with a spinning circle for 45 minutes waiting for the internet to connect. A lesson planned for 30 minutes might take hours to complete as the signal would fade in and out, and the child would still have three more classes to complete.
The Texas Association of Community Schools is an organization that works with small and mid-sized school districts in Texas. While our members come from all parts of the state, it is fair to say that the majority of our members are from rural communities. The pandemic has been cruel for all Texans, but especially to those in rural areas. Let me tell you why:
According to Connected Texas, approximately 300,000 rural Texas families do not have access to broadband internet connectivity which is defined as a minimum of 25 Mbps download and 3 Mbps upload speed. What does that mean to the 300,000 families without broadband internet connectivity? It means that even if a school district provided a laptop or Chromebook with a hot spot to every school-aged child, it would do those families little or no good. If they had internet, the children would spend as much time watching the spinning circle waiting for it to connect as they would learning. If, as some say, remote learning in some form is here to stay in public schooling, these families will watch educational opportunities slip from their children’s grasp. With many institutions of higher education moving to remote learning, rural students may see their opportunity for dual credit classes diminishing. Lack of high-speed internet in many rural areas of Texas is potentially crippling for rural children.
In the spring of 2020 when the school doors were locked to students and remote learning was mandated, rural children without a computer or internet were left with paper packets of lessons prepared by their teacher as their connection to an education. Students who could have benefited most from a quality education with guidance from a highly trained teacher were left to learn mostly on their own. They were hamstrung not by the fault of the school, but because of where they lived.
Most Texans love their hometown. Kids growing up in a Texas city who love their hometown have access to learning opportunities of which their parents never dreamed. That doesn’t mean that every child raised in a city will succeed in life, but it does mean they have access to the tools people need to be successful. For kids growing up in a rural area of Texas who love where they live, it’s a different story. They may have to choose between their hometown and moving away for economic opportunities.
Here’s the $1,000,000 question: Is Texas ready to make the investment to keep its economic engine humming by bringing broadband internet access to all parts of our state?
Barry Haenisch is the executive director of the Texas Association of Community Schools.