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.
And, oh, 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 who had 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 that day.
Some teachers expressed concern for homes located in river bottoms where even telephone service was inaccessible. For many families, a lack of internet and a lack of dependable transportation go hand-in-hand. For families living in an isolated area, it is a coin toss of which is harder to get, the internet for online lessons or transportation to pick up paper packets.
A superintendent of a small school only miles from a city expressed agitation with the high cost of internet connectivity in his community that prohibited many of his students from participating in the online lessons his teachers had prepared.
The Texas Association of Community Schools is an organization that works with the 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 the 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.
During this time of pandemic, the Texas economic engine has kept sputtering along due to parents being able to work from home — thanks to dependable internet. Our offices are in downtown Austin. Before mid-March, parking places were at a premium; now parking garages stand almost empty. It is rumored that many of the businesses that work near us will be only bringing a small number of employees back on-site. The rest will continue to work remotely, a system that saves the employer and the employee money.
With high-speed internet access, rural fathers and mothers could apply for the good-paying, at-home jobs that are held by their urban friends. According to the USDA Economic Research Service, in 2018, the average per capita income for rural Texans lagged behind the state’s average per capita by more than $10,000 per year.
Additionally, the report found the poverty rate in rural Texas exceeded that of urban Texas by 3.6%. Obviously, high speed internet has the potential to pump needed lifeblood that can save rural Texas!
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.
Wayne Reilly, president of Creative TRND, USA division has said, “Even in the middle of Antarctica, with good Wi-Fi signal you can succeed. With the right resources, you can achieve global success from any small town.”
Here’s the million-dollar 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?