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Here’s how a Texas border city is closing its digital divide

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When schools in McAllen moved online last spring, it became harder for Tiffany Torres-Gonzalez to attend class, even though her bedroom was now her classroom.

She didn’t have internet at home and a district-issued mobile hotspot was her connection to the online platform her teacher used to reach students virtually. The connection could be sluggish or nonexistent, especially when she and her two younger sisters logged in at the same time.

But things changed when Torres-Gonzalez, 12, returned from summer break. Gone is the hotspot. In its place is high-speed wireless internet, provided at no cost by the city of McAllen. The signal is strong enough the siblings no longer worry about their online classes glitching or crashing.

“I’m able to do my assignments anywhere in the city,” the sixth-grader said. “Sometimes we have to go to my grandmother’s house and I can still be able to do my classes because the Wi-Fi is around our area.”

City leaders wanted to close the digital divide in this South Texas border city of 140,000 for years, Mayor Jim Darling said. The coronavirus pandemic provided the impetus and funding to make citywide Wi-Fi a reality. 

Sixth-grader Tiffany Torres-Gonzalez works on an assignment for social studies as she and her two younger sisters attend school remotely from the family’s kitchen using a city Wi-Fi connection in McAllen. (Denise Cathey/Special to El Paso Matters)

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The digital divide was on full display as Darling, who will step down in May after eight years at the city’s helm and nearly three decades as its attorney, drove home from City Hall. Families gathered at fast food restaurants so their children could connect to the business’s free Wi-Fi. Long after class let out, students sat outside empty schools, using the buildings’ internet.

Torres-Gonzalez would go to the public library when she needed the internet for homework assignments.

The Texas-Mexico border is one of the least connected regions in the country, a 2016 Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas report found. Less than 60% of households in counties stretching from El Paso in the west to Cameron in the south had broadband internet — which has fast enough download speeds to run the virtual schooling platforms districts turned to when the pandemic forced campuses to close.

Though access has improved, a 2019 analysis by the National Digital Inclusion Alliance found that three of the five worst-connected cities in the country are in the Rio Grande Valley, including Pharr, McAllen’s neighbor just three miles away. About 14% of McAllen’s households — or 6,700 — don’t have broadband or a cellular data plan. That’s on par with El Paso, where 15% of households are without broadband.

Prior to the pandemic, McAllen had two dozen outdoor Wi-Fi “stations” at public parks and community centers. But there were still barriers to access for “underserved kids that needed the Wi-Fi” who couldn’t get a ride to the sites because their parents were working or because their family didn’t have a car, IT Director Robert Acosta said. Sitting outside to do homework also wasn’t feasible when it was raining or when temperatures reached above 90 degrees. 

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Last June, the McAllen City Commission approved using $3.1 million in federal coronavirus stimulus funding to install 1,000 Wi-Fi access points on neighborhood light poles so students no longer had to leave home to get online. The access points connect to the city’s 60 miles of fiber optic cables used to run streetlights and other functions.

The city of El Paso decided to use $150,000 of the $84 million it received from the federal government to purchase 625 hotspots that residents could check out from the public library system for a six-month stretch.

Sisters Kimberly, Tiffany and Brittany Torres-Gonzalez use tablets and a laptop to attend their classes using city-provided Wi-Fi from their family’s apartment in McAllen. (Denise Cathey/Special to El Paso Matters)

Convincing commissioners to invest in public Wi-Fi wasn’t a hard sell, Darling said, even though the city would be on the hook annually for $1 million to maintain the system. It’s something he believes they would have done regardless of the availability of federal funds.

“We don’t have $1 million to throw around, but our city commission is 100% behind it,” he said. “We thought it was worth the investment.”

In interviews about the project, which has caught the attention of other cities, he frequently refers to it as “the last piece of the puzzle” needed to get the city’s students online permanently and at all hours of the day. 

The McAllen Independent School District has provided students with a tablet or laptop since 2011, but many of its 23,000 students didn’t have home internet. Some families can’t afford a broadband subscription and some neighborhoods don’t have the telecommunications infrastructure to support high-speed internet.

“You can give them all the free devices you want, but they couldn’t hook into it,” Darling said. “Hopefully it (city Wi-Fi) somewhat levels out the playing field between kids in our low-income neighborhoods and kids from other neighborhoods — and they deserve it; that’s why we did it.”

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Like El Paso’s urban districts, three-quarters of McAllen ISD’s students were considered economically disadvantaged in the 2019-20 school year, meaning they qualified for free or reduced-price lunch or other public assistance.

City staff consulted the district to determine where to place the access points, Acosta said. They focused first on households with the lowest incomes and also identified areas of the city with large concentrations of school-aged children.

McAllen Independent School District employee Imelda Cantu checks that a parent has all their the items for their children’s meals at the district’s drive-thru pickup site. (Denise Cathey/Special to El Paso Matters)

About 43% of McAllen is now covered by the city’s broadband network and at a given point during the day, about 8,000 devices are connected to it, Acosta said.

McAllen ISD still relies on mobile hotspots — with about 11,000 in circulation — but the number is far lower than it would be without the city system, Superintendent J.A. Gonzalez said. Had the city not stepped up to close the digital divide, the district would likely have needed to obtain at least double the number of hotspots, which are expensive, easy to lose and not always effective.

The district provided instruction remotely through early February. In an early March interview, the superintendent said more than 90% of students elected to continue learning from home. Without city Wi-Fi, “I’m sure that we would have had many more students opting in to the face-to-face model,” he said.

Torres-Gonzalez’s mom, Wendy Gonzalez, expressed relief she’s been able to keep her daughters at home. “They’re doing great — they’re going into their classes every day without problems,” she said. “I’m really scared about COVID and everything that has happened. I’m scared for them to get something at school. They’re safe here at home.”

Since July, Hidalgo County has had the second-highest per capita death rate for COVID-19 of any urban county in the country. El Paso County has had the highest rate.

A McAllen Independent School District employee hands bags of meals through the car window to Diego and his mother Mary Hinojosa at the district’s meal distribution. (Denise Cathey/Special to El Paso Matters)

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The impact of free public Wi-Fi on the district will go far beyond this school year, Superintendent Gonzalez said: “It will transform us for years to come with regard to how we’re delivering instruction and the way that we form habits around virtual environments.”

It also benefits students’ families, who now can now access online government and health services, remote work opportunities and develop digital literacy skills.

Without the support of the city, closing the digital divide in McAllen ISD’s student body wouldn’t have been feasible, the superintendent said. It worked because there was “synergy” between the district and local government.

“If you can get the superintendent along with the city manager and the city commissioners and the school board to come together, then many hands make for light lifting,” Gonzalez said. “The youth of our community, the parents are counting on us to make these types of decisions … it’s paramount for school districts and cities to work together.”

Cover photo: Third-grader Kimberly Torres taps her pencil against the screen as she follows along to her teacher’s lecture. (Denise Cathey/Special to El Paso Matters)

This story was made possible through a Solutions Journalism Network grant.

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Molly Smith

Molly Smith has been a reporter for the El Paso Times and The (McAllen) Monitor. She’s covered education, criminal justice and local government. A Seattle native, she’s lived in Texas since 2014, with stops in Austin, the Rio Grande Valley and now El Paso. She can be reached at mksmith@elpasomatters.org or 915-247-8857.

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