With many school districts starting the school year remotely or offering remote instruction options for the 2020-21 school year, access to the internet and internet-accessible devices will be vital for educating amid a global pandemic. Although many school districts have already begun loaning devices to students ahead of the fall semester, the digital divide remains for others.
In hopes of eliminating this technological gap, Harris County Commissioners Court approved $32.1 million in funding needed to establish the Digital Access for Students-Support Program, which will provide hot spots with unlimited data plans and internet-accessible devices such as digital tablets and laptops to school districts throughout the county to loan to students for educational purposes.
"On one hand, I am thrilled we are offering help to families with the goal of flattening the education access curve," Precinct 2 Commissioner Adrian Garcia said in a statement. "However, it pains me that it took a pandemic to close the gap between kids with reliable access to the internet at home and those that, in some cases, are having to use mom or dad's smartphone to do their homework, if such a device is even available in the home. This is a great example of what we can accomplish when the state of Texas and local counties work together to help people in need. My hope is that we see more of this happen in the future."
Combined with T-Mobile's Project 10Million—which commits $10 billion to deliver free internet access and another $700 million in hardware to distribute to households in need nationwide by 2024—Harris County's program will also use federal funds allocated through the Coronavirus, Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act as well as dollar-for-dollar funds matched by the Texas Education Agency.
Funding through the CARES Act and TEA will allocate $19 million to provide more than 211,000 devices and 80,000 hot spots to students in Harris County, while T-Mobile's Project 10Million will provide 38,000 devices for Harris County students at an expenditure of $13 million. Additional program partners include AT&T and Verizon so the provider with the best coverage in a particular area can be chosen.
"Commissioner Garcia and I share one of our poorest school districts—Aldine [ISD]—and I think that this program is going to be a very important program for them," Precinct 4 Commissioner Jack Cagle said during the meeting.
All Harris County public school districts are participating in the program, and hot spots are expected to be delivered to school districts within the next two to three weeks, while devices will be distributed within the next three to five weeks.