A Question of Connectivity; BISD confronts digital divide

The Brownsville Independent School District faces two critical challenges when the 2020-2021 school year begins, narrowing the digital divide so that all students have equal access to instruction, and improving the quality of instruction to minimize what educators are calling the “Covid slide.”

The BISD Board of Trustees on Wednesday approved an amended district calendar that calls for classes to begin Aug. 25, and passed a resolution supporting state and local orders that schools remain closed for in-person instruction until conditions allow them to safelyreopen.

The district will offer online instruction only until further notice after receiving clearance from the Texas Education Agency to do so without risking funding.

Before TEA relented it was essentially saying “if you can get every child online, then you can do 100% distance learning,” trustee Philip Cowen said.

The funding hook is potentially troublesome for BISD, a district where many students lack adequate internet access to make online learning effective or even possible.

“I worry that because of the poverty in this city and the digital divide we’ll eventually have to open our schools before it’s safe, and the very poverty that caused the digital divide will contribute to the deaths of people,” Cowen said, referring to the threat posed by COVID-19

The district has already distributed millions of dollars worth of Chromebook laptop computers, but large chunks of the city lack basic internet connectivity, rendering the devices essentially useless, Cowen said.

Librarian Gabriela Lawler checks over a laptop for a student March 29 as staff work to prepare and assign equipment for students to use at home at Porter Early College High School.(Denise Cathey/The Brownsville Herald)
Mayor of Brownsville, Trey Mendez, addresses the BISD Board of Trustees over video conference Wednesday during the Emergency Called Board Meeting to vote on a resolution to continue distance learning for students due to COVID-19 at the district’s Administration Building.(Denise Cathey/The Brownsville Herald)

BISD is part of a consortium with the city, the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley, Texas Southmost College and others to improve the city’s broadband internet access.

According to an analysis of U.S. Census data by Business Insider, Brownsville is ranked second in the nation in its lack of broadband access, with an estimated 44 percent of households without a broadband internet subscription and more than 17 percent of households without a computer.

Cowen said BISD has a pair of gigabyte-per-second trunk lines that can be harnessed to broadcast wi-fi services in parts of town that lack high-speed internet, among them the old town site, parts of Southmost and areas of West Brownsville around Pace Early College High School. The city has rights of way via the Public Utilities Board.

“I’m confident that we can work around (the digital divide,) but we need to stop talking about it and just do it,” he said.

Meanwhile, as BISD embraces 100% online learning, trustee Drue Brown said she hopes the district focuses on providing the highest quality of online instruction possible.

“We had this thrust upon us in March and everyone did the best they could, everyone rose to the challenge,” she said. “Now we want to improve on things and do everything we can to offer the highest possible quality of education to our students.”