Laura: I have a really sweet-sad story from one of my co-workers. She is synchronous, so they do the Zooms. The parent works at a restaurant, and that is where they were getting their WiFi from. So, the student would sit in the restaurant, people are dining behind him, he would try to answer and you’d hear the music coming up from the speaker or people talking over their lunch or whatever, and it just broke my heart. Then he would turn his camera off embarrassed at where he was at.
It’s those little things and poor thing, and mom’s scared to send him to school for fear of the virus so they made it work. Every day, he’s at the restaurant doing his work with the WiFi restaurant. My parents today, telling me she’s having to drive, it’s heartbreaking. I wish I could give them my phone and, “Here, hotspot it.”
Tessa: That voice belongs to Laura, a first-grade teacher in Del Rio, Texas, right along the Texas-Mexico border. The San Felipe-Del Rio Consolidated Independent School District is a Title I school district and an example of what started with the onset of the pandemic and is happening in other low-income school districts across the state. The switch to online, remote learning has not been the most simple process and has only been exacerbated by their community’s place within the digital divide – the gulf between those who have ready access to computers and the internet and those who do not.
Emilia: People always have this quote of, “Oh, education is the greatest equalizer,” and I’m like, “Well, it’s for those who have equal access to it.”
Tessa: That was Emilia, a tenth-grade English teacher in Edinburg, a city in the upper part of the Texas Rio Grande Valley.
Emilia: Now having access to quality internet service means access to your quality education. Otherwise, you’re not getting a quality education. Teachers can be trying to do all this interactive stuff, but if the kid can’t participate, how are they getting access to it? What that does in the long term, it’s creating a group of people who are being pushed through a system of less quality of education. Also, it’s become more of a threshold, almost. If you have good internet, then you’re going to get this access to a great education and so forth. I feel that it’s unfair, it’s not equal.
Tessa: Though separated by hundreds of miles, Laura and Emilia both have students in the same boat floating within the gulf caused by the digital divide – a gulf that feels as expansive as the Gulf of Mexico.
From Raise Your Hand Texas, I’m Tessa Benavides, and this is Intersect Ed, where the stories of Texas public education policy and practice meet. This episode focuses on the digital divide — what it is, who is affected by it, how it is affecting Texas public schools and their students, and, most importantly, how experts and lawmakers can help to close the divide.
Raise Your Hand Texas supports House Bill 5 and Senate Bill 5. If passed, these bills would establish a State Broadband Development Office focused on expanding reliable Internet access to areas of the state like where Laura and Emilia teach. A first step that would ensure those most impacted by the digital divide are seen.
Jordana Barton: They’re very invisible to a lot of people. Just like the pandemic brought things into the news. It was invisible. It was 34,000 moms going to McDonald’s trying to take their child to do their homework. That was quiet suffering, that mom that couldn’t get her degree and become a health professional because she didn’t have access to the internet.
Those are very quiet, personal things that happen to people, but you know what they’re profoundly important for our economy. In fact, 34% of Texas residents, according to the census, don’t have access to fixed broadband at home. That’s what we’re trying to change.
Tessa: That voice belongs to Jordana Barton. It is impossible to talk about the digital divide in Texas and not hear Jordana’s name. She is currently the Vice President of Community Investments with Methodist Healthcare Ministries based in San Antonio. She began studying the digital divide in Texas in 2013 when she worked for the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas. What she quickly learned is that the digital divide has existed and has been growing for a long time.
Jordana: The advent of the commercial internet was about 1995, and there was a digital divide. If you looked back historically, some people didn’t have access to computers. It wasn’t such a big issue because access to the internet was seen, and still is legally, seen as a luxury. If you can afford it, you can have it. What has changed is that it’s now a necessity. It has been for a while. It’s no longer a luxury, it’s a necessity for education. We see it very blatantly with the pandemic. If you can’t socially distance and go to school from home, you can’t access education.
We’re having what they’re calling, right, the “COVID slide in education” because we’re just losing huge groups of students, and they’re not able to be educated. We saw that during the pandemics, it brought it into high relief.
So, now with what the pandemic did, Tessa, is it just pushed us like 10 years into the future. It was already a necessity. The homework gap was already a travesty in our country and causing huge educational inequities depending on whether or not you had access to the internet.
We can’t leave this as a murky issue that only some people know about. We needed all of our people to know, what are real solutions? What can they have? It’s basically a false scarcity that has been created, as if it can only happen to the lucky ones, if they can get fiber. No, we actually, in this country, we can come together as communities and organizations and solve this.
It’s going to be a question of will. Do we have the will to share information to solve this problem? Or is the status quo going to win out? Who benefits from the status quo?
Tessa: Jordana poses a thoughtful question: who is the status quo, and who is currently left out of it? Through her research into the digital divide, Jordana views solving the digital divide as three separate spaces for community improvement.
Jordana: Whether the infrastructure is there, the affordability of the service and devices, and the training digital skills, training, and technical assistance. You want to look at all three when you’re developing solutions with communities to solve the digital divide.
Tessa: We will dig deeper into infrastructure solutions in the next episode of Intersect Ed. For this episode, we will hear more from Laura and Emilia, about how affordability and the lack of digital skills are affecting their students and their daily work. Here’s Laura in Del Rio.
Laura: Because I’m a bilingual teacher, a lot of my kids only have their parents to work with them after work hours. I can see how difficult that is. Let’s say you have a family of five, you chose online because you are worried about the safety of your children, you are worried about the safety of whoever is living with you, grandparents, aunts, uncles, so you’ve opted to choose online for that reason.
Internet is expensive. It’s expensive, and like I said, we’re a Title 1 district and a lot of our families struggle, and more so now in this pandemic. Now, you know, the emotional struggle of having to send your kids in, because you didn’t have the availability of the broadband and the devices. It’s bad.
Tessa: In Edinburg, Emilia feels the same anxieties for her students and their families.
Emilia: I know that I have kids that started off the year with really good grades. Then the next month their parents couldn’t pay the bill and it became a problem. I know that you will have kids, like I have some of those kids that they’re not performing, you know they’re good students, but because of the lack of access, they’re not able to give you the best grade. I have one student who tells me, “Miss, ” because she lives in the outskirts of the city. Even though they have a hotspot, that hotspot is worthless.
Emilia: I have students who will tell me, “Miss, my internet is spotty. It’s coming in and out. If I use multiple programs, it becomes problematic,” because they’re like, “Miss, it’s buffering. It’s not hitting send, and I’m trying.” All of that comes down to the capacity of the internet they have at home.
Whether it’s a hotspot that they got from the school, because some of them got hotspots, the hotspot doesn’t have the capacity to last for the whole month. Some of the kids will be like, “I can’t switch back and forth.” like if you’re using multiple programs.
I spoke to one of the parents, and the parent was like, “I have internet access, but it’s two children, so the bandwidth is not enough.” The company was trying to sell them more gigabytes or whatever and they’re like, “Oh, it’s going to be $240.” She’s like, “I can’t afford $240.” She’s like, “I’m already paying $140 for this.” I was like, “Yeah, I understand.”
Tessa: Because of a lack of infrastructure to connect communities across Texas to the Internet, costs for internet are varying from community to community. So the lack of access and affordability creates a false scarcity, according to Jordana.
Jordana: Are we going to live in that all the time, paying the highest cost of these devices? No, it’s false. It’s a false scarcity. We do not have scarcity. We have abundance, and we have the solution. It’s just, people need to know about it, and so we’re trying to demonstrate how it can be done, because it’s technology, it’s the community coming together.
Tessa: Solving the affordability issue is a conversation about more than just whether or not the FCC deems the Internet to be a public good, like electricity. Though that is a conversation that needs to be had.
Jordana: Most definitely. Unequivocally, it is a necessity. I didn’t realize at the time back in 2013-14 when I was doing this study, but it became very clear that it was a necessity just like water and electricity. That challenges the underlying assumption by which telecommunications or internet access policy has been made in this country. It’s a luxury good. If you can afford it, you can have it. That brings up, should it be a utility? That has very important legal ramifications. It should be because it is a necessity. We’d be lying to ourselves if we said it wasn’t.
That would say that, okay, internet service providers, cooperatives, rural cooperatives, all the entities that are equipped to close the digital divide, not only are you going to get support from the federal government, but you’re going to be required to cover all areas at a cost that everybody can afford, just like with the telephone, just like with rural electrification. It’s not that one entity will be responsible for doing all of it. You’ll have rural costs, you’ll have internet service providers. You’ll put this effort together to reach every corner of the country, low-income communities included, with a basic service that we all agree on is the basic service at a basic cost.
Tessa: But we do not have to wait for the FCC. Jordana is a big proponent of local municipalities and private corporations and organizations coming together to address the digital divide in their communities, something a statewide office, such as the State Broadband Development Office, could monitor and assist in developing.
Jordana: We can create something totally new in this age where you have public-private partnerships solving this issue, you have local governments joining together to create efficiencies to provide internet connectivity. Whether or not they become an internet service provider is not the most important thing. The most important thing is that you have infrastructure in low-income communities.
Tessa: So, if access is provided at a low-cost rate, does that mean the digital divide is solved? What Emilia in Edinburg has realized is that even when her students had internet access that did not mean they knew how to utilize the programs needed to participate in remote learning.
Emilia: I’ll ask them, like, “Hey, can you guys open one tab for this, one tab for that and have it in a split-screen?” And some are like, “Miss, I don’t know how to do that.” And, that’s also part of the digital divide where the kids are not– People have this assumption that like, “Oh, the kids love video games, are on social media,” but that’s a different platform. The kids are not really fully aware of programs that we use here in the classroom.
Tessa: It is just not her students who needed Emilia to teach them computer skills.
Emilia: I’m able to speak two languages because my native language is Spanish, but yes, they will tell me, “Miss, [Spanish language].” They don’t know how to help their child because they don’t know what the issue really is. They’re not as literate as the general population, which they might have the capability of speaking two languages. The Spanish-only speakers have a harder time trying to understand what it is that I want their child to do. Sometimes I can speak to the child, but sometimes I can’t. I have to talk to the parents, and the parents like, “[Spanish language]”. They’re like, “[Spanish language]. Where do I find this? Where is it?” It’s really, really hard for them to understand because they did not grow up with that online education. They didn’t grow up using Google Classroom. That’s a lot of things that parents have to learn, too.
Tessa: Laura shares this experience with Emilia.
Laura: I go the extra mile. I do a lot of translating for them. Google is amazing. I’m able to insert audios, and I color code what’s in English and what’s in Spanish, so maybe the child doesn’t need the translation, the parent does, and I know the parent feels like they want to help, so I offer that.
Tessa: Jordana cautions that while infrastructure and affordability seem to solve the digital divide, that is only the beginning
Jordana: You can’t go anywhere without the infrastructure for sure, but so important is digital skills. The people on the wrong side of the digital divide, low-income people, minorities, people of color, elders. It depends on when you were born and how the internet has developed over the years and this necessity has developed over the years. That need that those teachers are trying to meet is a generational thing. It’s a testament to the fact that they know, as educators, that the parents’ access is as important as the students’ access.
It’s not just that the students need to have access and be trained in digital skills, but their parents do also in order to communicate with the school to help their child as they go from elementary to the upper grades with the digital skills, to be able to participate in healthcare and advocate for their students and their children in many, many realms.
Tessa: Public education has forever been changed by the pandemic. Inequities in education have been laid bare due to the lack of internet access and the digital divide. And while there have been many innovations and lessons learned over the last year, we know that in the long term we need to be intentional about how we solve these inequities so all students have equitable access to school and learning.
As conversations continue happening at the Capitol about these bills, we must remember the experiences of Laura and Emilia as well as their students and their communities. Finding a way for an equitable system of access to broadband will ensure success for students and teachers in the future. Our next episode will examine the effects of House Bill 5 and Senate Bill 5 on solutions that are already being implemented and how those might be able to scale to larger initiatives.
I’m Tessa Benavides, and this is Intersect Ed.
Today’s episode was written and narrated by me, Tessa Benavides. Our Sound Engineer and Editor is Brian Diggs and Executive Producer is Laura Mellett.
Thanks for listening to Intersect Ed, if you want to learn more about how to support Texas public education or how to get involved, head over to RaiseYourHandTexas.org.