How electric cooperatives are helping Texas students tackle pandemic learning

Pass or Fail

SHINER, Texas (KXAN) — “I thought I couldn’t do it because I didn’t have Wi-Fi in my house, so my computer wouldn’t work,” says 15-year-old Nadia Ibarra.

She’s a freshman at the Moulton Independent School District, where about 20% of students also needed internet help when schools went virtual in the spring.

“I would try to do most of it on my phone but some subjects I couldn’t get to do them because it wouldn’t work — it wouldn’t let me. I had a lot of problems doing it on my phone,” Ibarra remembers.

The A and B student started seeing more Cs and Ds.

Nadia Ibarra says she struggled with virtual learning for a couple of months on her phone until the district informed her they had a hotspot and laptop for her. (KXAN Photo/Tahera Rahman)

“It would bring my grades down whenever I did it on my phone because some, I wouldn’t turn them in on time or I wouldn’t do them,” she says.

About 15 minutes away, staff at Shiner Independent School District took a survey to find that roughly 15% of their families also lacked proper internet connectivity.

We tried to think, ‘OK, what are ways we can help them?'” says superintendent Alex Remschel.

Two rural school districts were facing the same problem: Shiner with roughly 600 students and Moulton with half that population.

Enter: The Guadalupe Valley Electric Cooperative.

Meeting major needs

“What is it that the schools need and what can we do to help them?” Darren Schauer, GVEC CEO, said of the company’s initial brainstorming of ways to make a difference.

He says the utility company hooked up Shiner’s parking lot to become a hotspot — roughly a $200,000 move.

“There would be cars spattered throughout the parking lot and … parents sitting there with their kiddo working on schoolwork,” Remschel remembers.

“We were already providing broadband out in most of the rural areas in which we serve electrically, so it was just a matter of being able to meet the other needs in a faster manner because of the onset of COVID-19,” Schauer says.

Nadia Ibarra holds her school-issued hotspot. The freshman was struggling to do her virtual schooling on her phone, using cell phone data. (KXAN Photo/Tahera Rahman)

GVEC also provided Moulton with 20 hotspots with unlimited data.

The district only has to pay $40 per month per device.

Normally, the district’s technology officer says, each one would cost about $200 to purchase, plus another $100 a month for limited data.

“It was a really big relief,” Ibarra says.

Not just for her, but for another struggling friend, too.

“She would call me and she would be like, ‘I don’t understand this’ and ‘My phone doesn’t work, it’s so slow, I don’t have much of my work done,'” Ibarra says. “And she doesn’t even talk English, so she would have more trouble.”

Ibarra says she helped her friend get a hotspot device from the school.

Poised to make a difference

The price tag isn’t lost on Schauer.

“It’s a challenge to build out these networks in rural areas where population is obviously less, the density is less. To be able to financially justify those types of investments is a challenge,” Schauer says.

He says since co-ops are tax-paying, not-for-profit businesses, they’re more poised to make those investments.

Texas Electric Cooperatives says the 10 electric co-ops above are providing broadband internet service to rural areas. Some are providing free broadband to disadvantaged students. (Photo courtesy/ Texas Electric Cooperatives)

“Certainly we have to make enough money to earn a return on our investment, but it’s not our primary motivation,” Schauer says.

There are a total of 67 electric co-ops in Texas. A group called Texas Electric Cooperatives represents them and says they’re serving 39 schools in 18 school districts across the state.

But even GVEC’s investment doesn’t fill the entire gap, long-term, for nearby school districts.

“I still don’t have Wi-Fi in my house,” Ibarra says.

According to state data published this year, more than 70% of students in middle- and high school need internet multiple times a week for homework.

According to this data published by the Texas Education Agency, 17% of Texas students lack proper internet connectivity, while 30% of them don’t have a laptop or tablet. (Source: Texas Education Agency)

“Some of our families out in the community — being able to access information is still limited and we definitely want to get to a point where that’s not an issue,” Remschel says.

Some co-ops and school districts — like Shiner and Moulton — are participating in something called Operation Connectivity to help achieve that long-term goal.

The program began in Dallas to address the lack of high speed internet and devices for students at home and it launched statewide in May.

It has a task force that is supposed to meet every month to review progress and overcome roadblocks.

Shiner ISD says it’s spent $20,000-$30,000 on connectivity since March.

Remschel says in case another emergency hits, he feels confident they’ll be able to give each student a mobile hotspot and device.

Partnering with the national non-profit Solutions Journalism Network, Nexstar stations nationwide are telling unique stories about how the pandemic has exposed inequities for students and the solutions some groups have found to bridge that gap.

Copyright 2020 Nexstar Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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