BROWNSVILLE, TEXAS – State Sen. Eddie Lucio Jr. expressed his support of emergency measures proposed in the U.S. Senate that aim to mend the digital divide in rural and poor areas amidst school closures due to COVID-19.

On Monday, 13 senators led by Sens. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.), Michael Bennet (D-Colo.) and Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) called on Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai to temporarily allow schools to use E-Rate funding to provide Wi-Fi capable devices and hotspots to students during this health crisis.

The E-Rate program issues discounts to schools and libraries for telecommunication and internet services and is capped at $4 billion each year. With $2 billion already allotted thus far, the senators are urging Pai to waive relevant rules to allow schools to make these accommodations so students can continue their education at home.

“As the Coronavirus outbreak begins to close our public schools, I strongly urge our federal government to do everything in its power to ensure that children who lack internet access at home, especially from lower income and rural communities like those in South Texas, are not negatively impacted by the Coronavirus,” Lucio, a member of the Senate Committee on Education, stated.

State Sen. Eddie Lucio, Jr.

“That is why I join efforts in calling for Congress and the FCC to appropriately adjust the E-Rate program to provide needed Wi-Fi capabilities so that all children have the ability to learn remotely through the internet. Every possible step needs to be taken to ensure that the health and academic success of our children are not negatively impacted by the Coronavirus outbreak.”

In their statement, the senators note that the COVID-19 pandemic has only highlighted the glaring disparity between students with internet access and the 12 million without it. At a time when over 70 percent of educators assign schoolwork that requires the internet, the senators are working toward a permanent solution. Now that schools are suspending classes and opting for e-learning alternatives, they fear that without FCC intervention the problem will only be exacerbated.

For the Rio Grande Valley, this is the reality. The region’s three major metropolitan areas – McAllen, Brownsville and Laredo – have been identified as the least digitally-connected in the nation. While there have been efforts to close the gap, poverty and the need for more initiatives have left Valley students behind.

With this outbreak, many districts have extended their spring break holiday while they scramble for longer-term solutions. Most recently, the Pharr-San Juan-Alamo Independent School District, which has been working with city officials and internet service provider Spectrum, announced plans to launch their e-learning classes starting March 23, in line with the city’s declared state of emergency.

David Hua, associate professor of computer technology at Ball State University, says that while remote learning immensely useful, its benefit can be debilitated by a school’s lack of preparedness and technological acuity. He suspects that most districts’ e-learning plans were developed to cover a few days in the event of inclement weather, not for prolonged periods of instruction.

“Teachers need to know effective pedagogy for a virtual learning environment,” said Hua. “Students and parents need to understand the learning management systems and other technologies over which instruction will be delivered. And support staff need to be available to address the inevitable technical difficulties that students, teachers, and parents will experience.”

As COVID-19 has students staying home, Lucio wrote to Texas Education Agency Commissioner Mike Morath on Monday, requesting that the department issue an emergency adjustment to the Average Daily Attendance (ADA) figures for all school districts within five miles of the U.S.-Mexico border.

In his letter, Lucio writes that in light of COVID-19 fears, schools along the border are experiencing a drop in attendance, especially among students who travel from Mexico for classes. As ADA is a key factor in determining funding for districts, several Valley schools will be negatively affected. The petition asks that the commissioner retroactively freeze ADA at no lower than 95 percent starting on March 2, 2020.

Dr. Rene Gutierrez, superintendent of Brownsville Independent School District, initiated the move when he reached out to Lucio last week. He explained his district’s predicament and the “potential devastating effect” inaction by TEA would bring. Lucio, who is vice-chairman of Texas’s Senate Education Committee, references this in his request.

Brownsville ISD Superintendent Rene Gutierrez

“Understandably, many parents are taking precautionary actions to protect the health of their children, including keeping them home from school,” wrote Lucio. “As Superintendent Gutierrez reports, this is especially true with Brownsville ISD and surrounding communities. The close proximity with the Country of Mexico where health disparities, systems, and resources are different than ours can cause parents to exercise greater care in ensuring that the risk of their children being exposed to any contagious condition is minimized. I hope you can see Superintendent Gutierrez’s concerns from his point of view, when many students cross into the United States to attend school on a daily basis is a true challenge, and at times, an added barrier to student attendance.”

In the 2018-2019 school year, Brownsville had an ADA of about 40,287 students, while the whole of Region One had an average of 403,141. With a per capita rate of around $206, districts could potentially lose thousands in funding for next year.

“Superintendents from Valley school districts have asked that while Texas contemplates its response to this challenge, the state take into account the unique circumstance faced by districts along the international boundary line with Mexico,” said Lucio.