Schools update Texas lawmakers on progress during pandemic and bridging digital divide

Texas

AUSTIN (Nexstar) — In the final Texas Senate Education Committee meeting before the next legislative session starts, Texas educators met with state lawmakers about lessons learned during the COVID-19 pandemic.

They also addressed the digital divide in Texas classrooms.

“I think COVID is showing everybody, you, the things—we talk about some of the things the leading districts have already been doing, but they’ve shown now how important this is, particularly in the 21st century to expand the options for our students,” State Sen. Larry Taylor, R-Friendswood, said during the hearing.

Karnes City ISD’s superintendent told lawmakers he quickly learned how adaptive his families and educators were when the district had to send kids home in the spring. The district, which serves between one and two thousands students, managed to provide internet hotspots for the students who needed them.

“I’ve learned during this pandemic is there is a demand for virtual education or online education,” Karnes City ISD superintendent Hector Madrigal said.

Eighty-six miles north, at Boerne ISD, 2,700 Chromebooks arrived this month, purchased through a statewide partnership called Operation Connectivity.

“When we have, you know, 80% of our students in person, 20% of our students that are at home, it’s very important for districts here in Boerne and across the state to have this technology so we can enhance education, making sure that our assignments are done on time, making sure that they have access to technology to get these lesson plans done and their assignments done, so that we can just continue to learn and continue to get back on track for all the time that students missed in the spring semester,” Boerne ISD communications director Bryan Benway said.

The new arrivals went alongside 3,000 Chromebooks from an order placed earlier in the year, giving the district with just over 9,000 students a total of close to 6,000 devices for classrooms. The technology can also be checked out for short-term use at home. The district ordered laptops for its educators as well and boosted its internet capabilities for families who needed assistance.

As lawmakers eye budgetary changes they’ll be forced to make next year with financial shortfalls due to the pandemic, Benway said it was important for Boerne ISD to ensure students and staff were set up in case there’s less money available during the next budget cycle.

“When you’re looking at budgets, there is nothing more important right now than trying to provide for students and teachers, especially as we look forward, not knowing what might happen in two or three months, we want to make sure that everybody is all set to go so we can continue to catch our students up from what they may have missed or because of not being in school from March to May of last year,” Benway said.

While some districts are still waiting for backordered technology due to high demand from the pandemic, Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath said those orders should arrive soon.

“I actually have the latest status on shipment here in front of me,” Morath told lawmakers during the hearing.

“Every device is going to be in hand no later than early December, from the stuff that I’m seeing,” Morath said.

“Depending on the manufacturer of the particular strand, some of that stuff is essentially already been shipped and 100% deployed, and some of it hasn’t necessarily been 100% deployed yet, but it’s it’s moving it’s moving as quickly as it can,” Morath said.

Morath, who leads the Texas Education Agency, also briefed lawmakers on the impact of House Bill 3 – the major school finance overhaul last session. Factoring in property tax decreases, the TEA said H.B. 3 resulted in $2.7 billion in additional dollars for public schools last fiscal year.

A year after the state passed historic H.B. 3, at least one lawmaker said he would not support educational budget cuts.

“I really refuse to pass a budget that’s going to make cuts to health or education during this natural disaster that we’re all facing,” State Rep. James Talarico, D-Round Rock, told KXAN News this week.

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