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We want to make sure that parents have the option, if they are afraid for a family member, for whatever reason, that they have the option to keep their kids home. 

The parent is the one exercising that option. But, I think it is incumbent on me that we don’t see inequities as to who has that flexibility. We want to make sure that everybody that has a legitimate public health concern, or a personal health concern, that they have the flexibility to do so. 

So, we are trying to work with school systems all over the state to ensure that these problems of access to broadband and devices at home can be satisfied. 

We have a task force set up called Operation Connectivity. The sole purpose of which is to ensure that everybody who is getting remote instruction has access to broadband at their house and has access to digital devices. 

We are looking at funding streams to reimburse school districts when they are providing those devices. We are looking additional funding streams that might reimburse the private sector for subsidizing places, especially in rural Texas, where there is not enough market to satisfy the same kind of broadband services. 

This is very high on our radar. I am hopeful we will have some real, tangible solutions in time for the school year. But, some of those solutions, we have to be honest with ourselves, some of those solutions are far quicker than others. 

If you are in a place where there is no cell phone towers that are sending signals to your houses, where there is no fiber optics, we ain’t going to get that solved by August. There is just no way to do it. The construction projects take too long. 

So, in those circumstances I think it is incumbent on us to be extra vigilant in ensuring that we have created very safe environments for those kids in schools. This may mean even some kind of class experience in wings of our schools that are less dense than others so that those students have less face-to face-contact, their teachers have less close contact. 

The evidence with the virus is, close contact is generally defined as 15 minutes or more, six feet or less away from somebody. 

So, we can take steps in our schools to – for certain students – reduce that even if we can’t take those steps for all of our students. And that would allow kids who don’t necessarily have broadband at home to come into a completely safe environment. I can envision other situations where schools set up additional options.

We can think of the use of portables, rethink some space in a local commercial facility, using space in a local church that is typically closed during the week, for kids whose parents have extra concerns about their health but don’t have bandwidth and for whom we can’t solve the bandwidth problem by August. 

There are solutions. None of the solutions are easy. Don’t get me wrong, I am not saying these are easily solved but there are solutions and we are working also to the extent that there are additive costs associated with these solutions; that we figure out a way to find a funding source to reimburse those addictive costs. That is easier said than done, as you can imagine, but that is something we are actively working towards.

Editor’s Note: The above op-ed is based on commentary Mike Morath made in a webinar on education hosted Monday by the Rio Grande Valley Partnership. The webinar also included state Sen. Eddie Lucio and Dr. Cornelio Gonzalez, executive director of Region One Education Service Center. The above commentary was the part of Morath’s remarks that related to the digital divide, a particular problem in the Rio Grande Valley of Texas.

Editor’s Note: Mike Morath is an American software developer and investor. He is the commissioner of the Texas Education Agency. Prior to joining the agency, he served as a trustee for the Dallas Independent School District, where he advocated for school reform and home-rule. Morath began his career in the technology sector. 

Editor’s Note: The main image accompanying the above guest column shows TEA Commissioner Mike Morath. (Photo credit: Marjorie Kamys Cotera for The Texas Tribune)

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