EDINBURG, Texas – The outgoing executive director of Region One Education Service Center says the digital divide in the Rio Grande Valley should be considered a “major crisis.”

Cornelio Gonzalez retires at the end of January, 2021. In an exclusive Zoom interview with Ron Whitlock of Ron Whitlock Reports, Gonzalez spoke about the high number of students in the Valley who cannot access the internet in their homes, either because there is no connectivity in the area or the price is too high for their parents. 

Whitlock wanted to talk to Gonzalez about the subject of the digital divide after watching a CBS Sunday Morning story that said 49 percent of people do not have adequate access to the internet. The story was written and researched by David Pogue. Click here to watch it.

That figure was for the United States as a whole. Whitlock thought it must be worse than that in the Valley. So, he asked Gonzalez how bad the situation is for students in the region.

“In my opinion the situation in the Valley is very bad, is very serious. We have a high percentage of families that are considered low socio-economic. About 85 percent of our families are considered low socio-economic in the Valley, and a majority of them, as a consequence of their socio-economic status, do not have the money to pay for internet services,” Gonzalez said.

“So, even if the internet services are available, our families may not have the money to pay for the service. That is one of the challenges.”

Zoom conversation between Cornelio Gonzalez and Ron Whitlock:

Gonzalez said the cost of service is too high for many Valley families.

“That is when it is available. In reality, in most of the areas in the Valley, there are large portions where they are not even covered. There is no service available,” he said.

As a result, Gonzalez said, local school districts are trying to fill in the gaps.

“So, schools, sometimes, buy something called a hotspot. They (the students) take them home and they discover when they have it at home, they have nothing to connect to. There is no network in many of our neighborhoods. So, even when people have a laptop and a hotspot, in many areas of Region One, our families cannot connect to the internet because there is nothing to connect to. That is a big problem.”

Gonzalez pointed out that because of COVID-19 most Valley schools are teaching online. 

“Unfortunately, our families cannot connect to online services and the kids are unfortunately not reached by educational services. That is a major crisis, a major problem for our schools.”

Asked if Region One has received additional dollars to help address the digital divide, Gonzalez said: “No, unfortunately, Region One has not received additional funding. The school districts have received additional funding. The money goes directly to the schools. It does not come through the education service center.”

Asked if Region One Regional has a plan in place to address the digital divide, Gonzalez said: “Well, we are trying all we can, looking for partners, anybody who wants to work with us in trying to facilitate the process. The State of Texas does have a program called Operation Connectivity that was started by Gov. Abbott in collaboration with Dallas ISD Superintendent Hinojosa. They started this project and it has gotten to the level where the State of Texas has provided over $200 million that can be matched with district resources to allow districts to buy computers and hotspots for the children. 

Gonzalez added: “As I said, that solves part of the problem. So now, maybe, many of our children do have the computers and the hotspots. The next stage who takes care of paying for the cost of the internet. And does the internet reach every family in Region One? Which is not the case.”

Gov. Abbott issued a news release in May about Operation Connectivity. It includes a quote from Dallas ISD Superintendent Michael Hinojosa. Click here to read the news release.

In July, Gov. Abbott announced the state will give $200 million in CARES Act funding to The Texas Education Agency to purchase eLearning devices and home internet to help students with remote learning.

Abbott said the TEA will purchase and distribute devices, hotspots, and more based on needs identified by local education agencies. The said the funding will also help establish a reimbursement program for devices and home internet costs incurred by those agencies from May 21 through September 1.

“As school districts delay the start of in-person instruction for the 2020-2021 school year due to COVID-19, it is essential that we work to provide Texas students with the devices they need to connect and communicate online for classroom instruction,” Abbott said. 

“As we continue to combat COVID-19 in Texas, we are committed to providing reliable and effective solutions that will help students academically succeed while protecting public health.”

State Sen. Juan Hinojosa of McAllen was featured in Abbott’s news release about the $200 million funding commitment. Hinojosa is vice chairman of the Senate Committee on Finance.

“No child should ever be denied the ability to achieve his/her dreams simply because he/she does not have technological devices or internet access. Education is the great equalizer and while that will look different in the near term, a move to distance learning to protect students and teachers can only be effective for all learners if they all are able to actively learn and participate,” Hinojosa said.

“Today’s actions by the Governor and TEA will move us toward this goal of ensuring every child has equal access to the tools and resources necessary to achieve a high-quality education.”

The Zoom conversation between Whitlock and Gonzalez also featured the Region One executive director’s thoughts on reopening schools.

Gonzalez has been serving as executive director of Region One for almost ten years. Before that he was superintendent of Mission CISD. He will retire at the end of January, saying he wants to devote more time to his family.

“Serving people is the best thing you can do. If you life is dedicated to serving others I think you feel satisfied and you have a feeling of making a difference in the lives of other people,” Gonzalez said.

Editor’s Note: The main image accompanying the above news story shows Cornelio Gonzalez on a Zoom interview.

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