Two local volunteers are part of a statewide task force meant to determine best solutions to internet connectivity and device availability to school districts, families and students throughout Texas.
Julea Johnson, who serves as executive director of technology services in the Bryan school district, was on the coordination and logistics team that was tasked with looking at solutions districts throughout the state successfully implemented in the spring as COVID-19 forced learning online. Walt Magnussen, associate director of The Academy for Advanced Telecommunications and Learning Technologies at Texas A&M, served as a subject matter expert on the governor’s task force.
According to a press release from the governor’s office, Operation Connectivity was started in Dallas to address the lack of high-speed internet and home laptops for Dallas students but has expanded to improve access to students statewide.
“As Texas students continue their education at home through virtual instruction, it is essential that we provide them with the resources they need to connect and communicate online,” said Gov. Greg Abbott in the press release.
The question of how to close the digital divide is one districts have faced for years, Johnson said. With families in the district who cannot afford internet connection, she added, it is critical to provide all families that access.
“The ultimate goal is to make sure that if you can’t afford it, that we can get at least some form of internet connectivity so that the learning doesn’t stop even after the school hours,” Johnson said.
The Bryan school district is working to establish a secure LTE network for families.
Magnussen said the digital divide began decades ago when internet access became competitive and market driven, leading to fewer reasonable options for people.
“According to both the state reports and to FCC reports, we have about 30% of our population that are either working at home or are studying at home but they’re students and do not have the ability to do that because they do not have reasonable, reliable internet access,” he said.
He noted finding the solution to the digital divide is a complex issue and will rely on private-public partnerships at the state level.
Johnson said her team discovered partnerships and a help line or email are some of the key elements to a successful solution.
“I don’t think everyone has the perfect answer, and the reasons are budget constraints as well as the right technology that’s affordable,” she said. “I think one of the other things that I’ve taken away from this is there are lots of emerging technologies that we may be able to leverage very soon that could get our communities connected.”
As a subject matter expert, Magnussen said, his role in the statewide initiative was to determine the logistics and ability of bringing some of the ideas to fruition, noting how rapidly technology changes.
Johnson said studying other districts’ solutions made her realize how successful Bryan’s implementation in the spring was. The district has ordered an additional 3,000 devices that are expected to arrive before the start of school.
With a 2-to-1 ratio of devices to students, she said, the district was looking to move to a 1-to-1 ratio when the pandemic hit Texas.
“With COVID, I think it’s proved that this is something we really need to take seriously and put that at the forefront,” she said.
Magnussen said it is unacceptable to have 30% of the population unable to access internet. It would be “somewhat acceptable,” he said, if the number of connected households rose from 70% to mid- to upper 90%.
He said his hope for what this task force provides for the future is a solution that would leave close to 100% of the population with access to reasonable internet services.
“As far as I’m concerned, the only people that should not have internet access are the people that want to be off the grid,” he said.