DALLAS (CBSDFW.COM) – As many Texas students prepare to start the school year online, now more than ever access to the internet is essential.
Last spring, an estimated 1.8 million students across Texas were not able to take part in the online learning because they did not have high-speed internet.
North Texas school districts spent the summer working to address the issue but some parents say they still feel like they have to choose between their child’s health and their education.
“I’d rather not risk sending my kids back to school but I don’t have a choice,” said Jhoanna Cadnea, a parent of two McKinney ISD high school students. “We don’t have reliable internet so they have to go back.”
For the Cadnea family to connect to the internet from their home in rural Collin County, the family uses a cell phone as a hotspot. In their neighborhood, however, cellular reception is spotty, at best.
“Sometimes no matter what you do, it is not possible to get internet here,” said 10th grader Jessica Cadnea.
Last spring when schools were forced online, Jessica and her brother, Christian, fell behind.
They missed class Zoom calls, could not download instructional videos, and at times, their internet connection was not even strong enough to email in their homework.
“I think some of my teachers thought it was just an excuse to not do my work or to not turn it in or something, but they didn’t understand my situation,” she said.
With classes beginning yet again online this fall, Jessica’s mother is worried.
“I’m afraid they are going to end up failing just because of a lack of internet that we are not able to get and it’s beyond my control. It’s beyond their control,” Cadnea said.
According to the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas, nearly one in three households in Fort Worth and Arlington do not have fixed internet.
It’s even worse in Dallas.
At 42%, Dallas has the worst connection rate among the ten largest cities in the country.
To solve the problem, local school districts have spent millions of dollars in recent months on mobile hotspots.
Dallas ISD will hand out more than 20,000 hotspots to students this year at a cost of nearly $2.9 million.
Since March, Fort Worth ISD has spent $3.6 million to purchase an additional 16,000 hotspots.
Districts, like Plano ISD, along with mobile hotspots, are setting up Wi-Fi spots at schools where students can connect from the parking lots.
Even still, some schools worry students may be left disconnected which is why when DeSoto ISD starts the year online, students will have the option to do it at school.
There will be no face-to-face teacher instruction but school buildings will be open with supervised online learning and reliable internet connection.
Since the spring, the Texas Education Agency and school districts have set aside $400 million with the goal to providing one million laptops, iPads and a half million hotspots to needy students.
Non-profits, like Dallas Innovation Alliance, have also jumped in to help narrow the digital divide.
The non-profit converted an old school bus into an internet hub and this fall the bus will be parked in Dallas neighborhoods where internet connection is limited.
“We all need to get creative,” said Jennifer Sanders with Dallas Innovation Alliance. “How do we make sure internet, in some form or fashion, is in every home? I think it’s important to be looking at the longer term as you are solving for the gap right now.”
Community leaders and educators say the hotspots handed out by schools are just a “Band-aid on a more complex issue”.
The pandemic has further fueled the push to make high-speed broadband a public utility but cost remains a major hurdle.
According to a recent economic model done by CostQuest Associates, connecting every home in Texas to broadband would cost more than $3.7 billion.