COMMENTARY: Digital divide: Our glaring reality

At the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, the city of Pharr acted quickly to flatten the curve and mitigate the spread of the virus.

Having already witnessed the devastating effects of COVID-19 in other parts of the world, I issued one of the region’s first emergency orders. The city quickly proceeded to open a call center, coordinated resources with our local school districts and immediately requested additional resources and support from our state and federal leaders.

Among the hardest-hit sectors is our education system, which has transitioned to distance learning. I am meeting regularly with our local educational leaders to discuss their needs, and together we are working on solutions that will help support our teachers and students.

Pharr has five different school districts within our jurisdiction: Pharr-San Juan-Alamo ISD, Valley View ISD, Hidalgo ISD, Vanguard Academy and IDEA Public Schools. This brings a combined total of close to 30,000 students enrolled within our city limits.

Transitioning from traditional classroom instruction to online instruction has proven to be a tough feat. The most prominent obstacle facing our students and families in this transition is access to internet.

For many years, Pharr has been leading the effort to bridge the digital divide for families in areas of South Pharr. In 2017 the city, in collaboration with the PSJA School District, the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas and private entities such as BBVA Compass Bank, announced a pilot project, Pharr Life Net, that brought free internet access to 50 families in their homes. The city invested $90,000 in the household study on external devices and equipment for each home, and $100,000 was invested through the Federal Reserve Partnership with BBVA Compass for a financial impact feasibility study.

Through the pilot project, and with the increase in connectivity among students and families, the plight of traditionally underserved families along the Texas Mexico border can be significantly improved.

Since then, Pharr leaders have worked diligently to identify other funding sources to expand broadband internet access to further close the digital divide.

We have been pressing federal legislators about the need for programs and resources to help even more families that lack access to affordable internet.

Specifically, Pharr has been pushing federal agencies such as the U.S. Department of Agriculture to allow for waivers for eligibility requirements for areas such as Pharr, which is considered an urban community but remains among the most digitally disconnected areas, to be allowed to compete for funding for programs that would expand broadband internet access to residents. Pharr does not qualify as “rural” due to its population, but it remains too small to compete with metropolitan areas.

Now, in the midst of COVID-19, with shelter-at-home orders in place and with families working and learning from their homes, it is even more imperative to increase access to broadband internet to support distance learning and keep students learning and thriving in this new educational environment.

Our city is committed to bridging the digital divide and understands the burden placed on students, families, educators and school districts during this transition. We are committed to exploring all possibilities for funding for this critical infrastructure, including imploring congressional and state leaders to consider providing more resources, connectivity and technology options for our community through existing programs or possible future COVID-19 infrastructure recovery funding, especially now at this critical time.

Bridging the digital divide is one of our highest priorities, and is critical to our infrastructure, our community’s development, and our future. We will continue working aggressively with our congressional leaders and state legislators to make them aware of this issue, and urge them to develop solutions that will enable us to provide relief for our students and families.

Ambrosio Hernandez is mayor of Pharr.