Houston school districts assess digital divide amid virtual learning preparations for 2020-21 school year

Cy-Fair, Spring and Klein ISDs are currently assessing existing gaps in student access to technology in preparation for the 2020-21 school year. (Courtesy Adobe Stock)
Cy-Fair, Spring and Klein ISDs are currently assessing existing gaps in student access to technology in preparation for the 2020-21 school year. (Courtesy Adobe Stock)

Cy-Fair, Spring and Klein ISDs are currently assessing existing gaps in student access to technology in preparation for the 2020-21 school year. (Courtesy Adobe Stock)

From January to June of this year, total student participation and progress in online math coursework decreased statewide by 95.2% and 93.9%, respectively, as students and teachers adjusted to at-home learning during the coronavirus pandemic.

School districts in the Cypress and Spring areas of Northwest Houston are now working to fill any technology gaps that may exist among students, as virtual learning will become the new norm for many in the upcoming 2020-21 school year.

“When you’re going through an unprecedented time, you do unprecedented things,” Cy-Fair ISD Superintendent Mark Henry said during a July 7 special board meeting. “We are going to have the two options available once school rolls around—for in-person, as dictated by the state at this time, but also, we want to make sure that we have that virtual option ... available to parents and students that choose to go that direction.”

As part of the district’s Learning Together Everywhere 1:1 program, CFISD officials have announced plans to invest $44 million to bridge the digital divide for students. This plan includes the purchase of 75,000 Chromebooks for students in the upcoming year. Currently, CFISD has an estimated 40,000 Chromebooks, of which about 10,000 were loaned to students taking courses over the summer.

“When we start school Aug. 24, ... and if in a month, the state decides that we need to shut school down, our students will not miss a beat,” CFISD Chief Academic Officer Linda Macias said.

In addition to distributing Chromebooks, CFISD is also looking to provide unlimited data to students who are currently without at-home internet access by purchasing 4G LTE broadband wireless hot spots for the 2020-21 school year.

According to BroadbandNow, an online organization that provides localized information and comparisons of internet providers, there are an estimated 129,000 people without any access to wired internet across Harris County.

In the majority of neighborhoods in the Spring area, residents have access to two to seven internet providers. However, roughly 2,000 people in the Spring area have access to one or fewer internet providers. Additionally, the cheapest price Spring-area families can expect to pay for at-home internet access is $49.99 per month for up to 100 Mbps, the recommended internet speed for homes with four or more internet users.

Taking those statistics into consideration, Spring ISD is planning to spend more than $3 million to accommodate students’ technology needs for next school year using funds from non-bond capital projects set aside for technology upgrades for the district, according to SISD Chief Financial Officer Ann Westbrooks.

“The district is in the final stages of assessing the technology needs of our students and staff for the 2020-21 school year,” Westbrooks said. “We plan to purchase additional devices in an effort to achieve a 1:1 ratio of devices for our students in grades 3-12 while also having some devices available for our students in [grades] pre-K-2.”

According to SISD Information Technology Officer Jeff Kohrmann, the district already distributed 11,000 devices to students during at-home learning in the spring semester, and it plans to allow the use of personal devices in the coming year.

“With the number of our mobile devices currently deployed and those that are on order, we will be at 85% of our 1:1 goal,” Kohrmann said. “When the number of district devices is combined with the number of personal devices being used by students who choose to bring their own, we expect every student who needs a device will have one.”

The district recently released virtual and hybrid learning options for students in the 2020-21 school year and is currently in the process of developing a third in-person option.

Families in Klein ISD were also given two learning options for the upcoming school year: in-person classes or remote learning. To participate in remote learning, students will be required to have access to a device and at-home internet.

During the spring semester, the KISD distributed loaned laptop devices to intermediate and high school students and expanded Wi-Fi coverage at district facilities to reach nearby homes.

“Through the overwhelming community support of the 2008 and 2015 bond referendums, Klein ISD has long made strategic investments in student and staff technology," KISD Chief Academic Officer Amy Miller said. "This investment served us well as we were able to deploy devices to qualified families during the initial response to the pandemic. In addition to hardware, we have invested in digital resources to support initial instruction, enrichment and intervention. Whether it be in the classroom or virtually, we ensure that our students have access to high-quality teaching and learning resources in Klein ISD.”

Danica Lloyd and Hannah Zedaker contributed to this report.


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