WYNN ROSSER — Texas will not recover until public schools recover

Published 5:55 pm Friday, August 28, 2020

Whether you are in an urban community or rural Texas, the COVID-19 pandemic and its impact on our families, businesses, communities, and schools are far-reaching.

What is clear beyond the coronavirus’ public health impact is the significant inequities that the pandemic has laid bare, and our state must address.

Rural Texas notches higher than the state average and national average in food insecurity and poverty. Health care access is often critically in short supply as hospitals are on the brink of closure.

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COVID-19 exposes gaps that we knew were there; only these gaps are not cracks but canyons, especially in public education. The problems – especially broadband connectivity – hit rural communities even harder.

The U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics classifies more than 2,000 Texas public school campuses as rural. That is more schools in rural areas than any other state, serving a student population of nearly 700,000.  We have more rural students than some states have total population – too many to ignore.

The connectivity and access to high-speed broadband that rural communities have long needed to be competitive in business, health care, and education have not kept pace with demand, nor with our urban counterparts.

For some schools, when COVID-19 forced closures, the solution for lack of connectivity for underserved students and rural areas: issue Chromebooks or iPads and create WiFi hotspots at school parking lots or using parked school buses.

While that crisis response solution worked for some students in urban environments where you have dense cell signals, it is not so useful in rural communities where parents must drive children 20 to 30 miles to take advantage of the WiFi near a bus or in a school parking lot. Students in many lower-income urban areas and rural communities also do not have access to computers, tablets or other connected devices needed for online education.

Along with other members of the Texas Rural Funders and our allies at Connected Nation, we pressed for the expansion of broadband networks to rural communities prior to COVID-19.  It was important six months ago, and it is imperative today.

The availability, adoption, and use of reliable, high-speed internet may determine if a community thrives or survives in the age of COVID-19 and beyond. Many rural areas have no to low high-speed connectivity, and where it is available, it is often not affordable. For example, in rural East Texas, residents pay 400% more per megabit than do residents of the Metroplex.  Rural Texans pay more for slower, less reliable internet access.

Education recovery and response plans must ensure devices and connectivity for all 5.4 million Pre-K through 12th-grade students, including nearly 700,000 rural students.

The recently announced $200 million TEA matching grant program is a step in the right direction, but it will not resolve the digital divide and ensure digital equity. It is a Band-Aid on a decade’s long disinvestment in rural communities and critical infrastructure.  It will leave rural students further behind.

As school districts work to develop a myriad of costly and complicated operational plans for the next school year, they are receiving mixed messages and ever-evolving directives from state and federal leaders regarding reopening.

Recently, Philanthropy Advocates (formerly known as Texas Education Grantmakers Advocacy Consortium) joined 18 other business and education organizations from across Texas. We called on our state’s leaders to recommit to the investments in public education achieved last legislative session while addressing the unique financial and logistical challenges posed by COVID-19. Equitable access to broadband should be a key strategy for our larger recovery.

School this fall will be different—whether in-person or online. But, one thing is sure, and I hope state leaders hear this call. Texas will not recover until our public schools recover. Let’s get it done—for our students, our citizens, and our future.

Dr. Wynn Rosser is chair of the Philanthropy Advocates’ Leadership Committee and is President and CEO of the T.L.L. Temple Foundation, based in Lufkin, Texas. Philanthropy Advocates is online at philanthropyadvocates.org.