The first day of school is about four weeks away, but students aren’t looking for new backpacks.
They aren’t preparing to decorate their lockers, or coordinating with friends where to eat lunch in the cafeteria. They won’t be there in August.
School districts across the Rio Grande Valley, because of the COVID-19 pandemic, are preparing to reopen for a virtual fall semester. And the only thing standing in their way is the region’s wide technological gap.
Valley districts will be almost completely dependent on internet-based learning for the beginning of the 2020-21 school year, but thousands of Valley students have an internet connection that is far from dependable. Many don’t have a connection at all.
Students in rural areas face even greater connectivity problems. At Donna ISD, for instance, nearly half of its student body does not have Wi-Fi at home.
Already, Valley students haven’t learned inside brick and mortar since March, and won’t be returning to classrooms until Sept. 27 at the earliest — when the county’s order for local schools to operate through online instruction expires.
A lack of infrastructure to support proper internet access evenly throughout the Valley, especially rural areas, is a long-standing issue according to state Sen. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa.
“The challenge here is that it is spotty,” the senator said. “We don’t have the infrastructure across the whole Rio Grande Valley, mostly in main cities. … For school districts like Edinburg and La Joya ISD, they have a huge area to cover, where many of the students live in the colonias, where they don’t have the infrastructure.”
Donna ISD Superintendent Hafedh Azaiez said a large portion of the district’s student body lives in rural areas, where an internet connection is poor.
A survey the district sent out, which had a response rate of about 75%, revealed that 42% of students do not have Wi-Fi connection at home.
To combat this, Azaiez will be proposing a plan to its school board Tuesday to install 12 internet towers around the city, each within a mile radius of high-speed Wi-Fi.
The project would cost 3.7 million, an investment Azaiez said is important for the district to make.
“It’s an expensive endeavor, but it’s really a long-term investment,” the superintendent said. “Really this is all about leveling the digital divide… so that everyone has the same exact opportunity as any student anywhere.”
The towers would be installed on school properties, and would be expected to be finished by September.
Additionally, the district recently purchased enough devices to ensure that each student district wide would have a device — iPads for kindergarten students to second graders, and Chromebooks for third grade students and up. This was a 5.7 million purchase.
“Although we are sad not to have all the students back with us, with the devices, and if we get the towers approved, we feel like our students would be in a very good position to learn from home,” Azaiez said.
Edinburg CISD, which also has a large number of students in rural areas, reported that 33% of their students do not have access to Wi-Fi at home. However, the survey response rate was 27%.
On the other hand, for Mission CISD, 82.4% of their students said they did have access to Wi-Fi at home, and had a 91% response rate of surveys. The district is also aiming to supply each of its students with devices for the upcoming school year.
La Joya ISD reported similar numbers, with 82.1% of households with internet connection — there are 10,259 households represented in the survey data, with 23,493 students. There are a total of about 27,000 students in the district.
In a Sharyland ISD school board meeting on June 18, a representative said about 6% of its 10,000 students experienced Wi-Fi problems at home. At that time, they had 240 hotspots available for students. Though, 600 students need them.
However, Sharyland now is able to supply each of its students with a device.
Roma ISD is also fully equipped to provide devices to all of its students, and has several plans to connect them to Wi-Fi.
According to a recent survey, 4.1% of its students do not have internet access at home. The survey response rate, however, was about 18%. The district has about 6,200 students enrolled.
Roma ISD has about 200 hotspots to distribute; though Leticia Cadena, the district’s director of technology, said they need double the amount.
The district will also have school buses with Wi-Fi routers roaming neighborhoods, in addition to providing each of its students with a device.
McAllen ISD does not know how many of its students have access to Wi-Fi at home, though they are aiming to provide each of its students with a device, according to Superintendent J. A. Gonzalez.
He said the district is currently working with the city and county to supply every student with either an iPad or Google Chromebook, along with a Wi-Fi hotspot. The district hopes to distribute hotspots to all of its students to ensure that there are no barriers in online learning, he added.
“It helps the household, so you do not have your whole bandwidth taken up with your kids doing all these assignments with everyone else logged on,” Gonzalez said. “We don’t want that to slow our students down. That is why we are giving them hotspots even if they already have Wi-Fi at home.”
The superintendent said transitioning to remote learning has been a learning curve for everyone in the education field, and that joint efforts have been important to the process.
“Everyone is working as a team right now, and it is that teamwork that is going to put us in a position to excel in this distance learning environment,” he said.