Efforts include urging federal legislators to expand broadband internet access for Pharr families
Texas Border Business
Pharr, Texas – The effects of the COVID-19 pandemic have been felt around the world bringing economies to a halt, overwhelming the healthcare industry, revolutionizing the way we do business, and forcing schools to transition to e-learning. As we begin to grapple with the effects here in the Rio Grande Valley, we are bracing ourselves for a new normal. Now more than ever, we are reliant on the internet and technology to drive our governments, businesses, workforce, and education systems.
At the onset of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, the City of Pharr acted quickly in efforts to flatten the curve and mitigate the spread of COVID-19. Mayor Ambrosio Hernandez, M.D., issued one of the area’s first Emergency Orders, opened up a call center, and has pushed for resources and support for all residents and businesses. Unfortunately, one of the hardest-hit sectors has been our education system, which has completely transitioned to distance learning. Mayor Hernandez met with local area educational leaders to discuss needs and address solutions that would help support this new reality, and one of the major obstacles for students and families to access educational resources and support has been the lack of widespread, reliable broadband internet access.
The City of Pharr has a total of five different school districts within its jurisdiction – Pharr-San Juan-Alamo Independent School District, Valley View Independent School District, Hidalgo Independent School District, Vanguard Academy and IDEA Public Schools. This brings a combined total of close to 30,000 students enrolled within the city limits. Moving from traditional classroom instruction to online, virtual delivery of instruction from one week to the next proves to be a tough feat, given the lack of technological connectivity.
For many years, Pharr has been leading the effort to bridge the digital divide for families in areas of South Pharr. In 2017, the City of Pharr, in collaboration with Pharr-San Juan-Alamo Independent School District, the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas, and private entities such as BBVA Compass bank, announced a pilot project, Pharr Life Net, that brought free internet access to 50 families in their homes. The City of Pharr invested $90,000 in the household study on external devices and equipment for each home, and $100,000 was invested through the Federal Reserve Partnership with BBVA Compass used for a financial impact feasibility study. Through the pilot project, and with the increase in connectivity among students and families, the plight of traditionally-underserved families along the Texas-Mexico border can be significantly improved.
Since then, Pharr leaders have worked diligently to identify other funding sources to expand broadband internet access to further close the digital divide. have been pressing federal legislators about the need for programs and resources to help even more families that lack access to affordable internet. Specifically, Pharr has been pushing federal agencies such as the U. S. Department of Agriculture to allow for waivers for eligibility requirements for areas such as Pharr, which is considered an urban community but remains among the most digitally-disconnected areas, to be allowed to compete for funding for programs that would expand broadband internet access to residents. Pharr does not currently qualify as “rural” due to population, but it remains too small to compete with metropolitan areas. Now, in the midst of COVID-19, with Shelter-At-Home orders in place, and with families working and learning from their homes, it is even more imperative to increase access to broadband internet to support distance learning and keep students learning and thriving in this new educational environment.
“For the Rio Grande Valley, the digital divide is a stark reality,” said Mayor Ambrosio Hernandez, M.D. “Now, more than ever, it is time that our congressional and state leaders take action to provide grant eligibility waivers for communities with glaring digital divides,” he added. “It is clear that egregious inequities exist concerning broadband access and connectivity for our students,” he stated. “This is a reality prevalent in underserved and underprivileged rural communities and communities of color, such as ours,” he continued.
According to the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas, the three metro areas on the South Texas border are among the most digitally-unconnected areas in the nation. Statistics from the U.S. Census American Community Survey suggests that the percentage of residents in the Pharr-McAllen-Edinburg-Mission with broadband access is only at a dismal fifty-five percent.
“The toll this pandemic is taking on families, relative to the digital divide that exists in our community, is apparent in all aspects of their daily lives, especially for our students who do not have access to the internet at home and cannot complete their school work,” he said. “They are most at risk of falling behind compared to their peers who do not have to worry about finding access to the internet,” continued Hernandez. “We must act now to provide relief for not only our students, but also for working families who may also be adjusting to working from home,” Hernandez said.
Most of these students and families relied heavily on libraries, restaurants, or coffee shops for free internet connectivity, but now, they have nowhere to turn to. By connecting Pharr with broadband internet access for all households, schools, and public buildings, Pharr continues to work toward bridging the digital divide.
“These types of programs exist and they work; we know that because our pilot project with PSJA ISD, Pharr Life Net was a huge success,” Hernandez said. “We hope to continue working aggressively with our congressional leaders and state legislators to make them aware of this issue, and urge them to develop solutions that will enable us to provide relief for our students and families,” continued Hernandez. “As we expect a peak to occur in the coming weeks, there seems to be no timeframe or answer as to when this pandemic will end and until then, our education system and society will continue to rely on the internet to function,” added Hernandez.
The City of Pharr remains committed to bridging the digital divide and understands the burden placed on students, families, educators, and school districts during this transition. Mayor Hernandez and city leaders are committed to exploring all possibilities for funding for this critical infrastructure, including imploring congressional and state leaders to consider providing more resources, connectivity, and technology options for our community through existing programs or possible future COVID-19 infrastructure recovery funding, especially now in this critical time.
“Bridging the digital divide is one of our highest priorities, and is critical to our infrastructure, our community’s development, and our future,” Hernandez ended.