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Laptops and Hotspots to the Rescue But How is HISD Going to Afford to Keep This Going?

Isabella Vazquez (left) and her brother Daniel (right) made the best of virtual learning with their HISD laptops.
Isabella Vazquez (left) and her brother Daniel (right) made the best of virtual learning with their HISD laptops.
Photo by Schaefer Edwards
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On a Thursday night in mid-March 2020, the Vazquez family were eating dinner at Spanky’s Pizza on Telephone Road, at a fundraiser for Ortiz Middle School’s theater department. They were celebrating 13-year-old Isabella’s performance at the school talent show that night where she had sung "When Will My Life Begin?" from Disney’s Tangled.

All of a sudden, 15-year-old Daniel announced that he’d just seen on social media that Houston Independent School District had cancelled classes for the next day, Friday, March 13, and that the district had extended its spring break scheduled for March 16-20 an additional week due to the recently-arrived coronavirus.

The two-week break in turn became a four-week hiatus intended to help “flatten the curve” of COVID-19 cases that were spreading throughout the Houston area.

“Then the online adventure began,” his mother Julie said.

Daniel and Isabella were “going to school” from home, as Julie, a stay-at-home mom, watched them adjust on the fly. Daniel, a student at Chavez High, already had a district-provided laptop through the district’s PowerUp program begun in 2013 and could pivot into online classes quickly.

Isabella wasn’t so lucky. HISD hadn’t been giving computers to elementary school and middle school students, so for the early days of her pandemic-education, she worked on a big packet of time-killing algebra worksheets her mom picked up from Ortiz Middle to keep her occupied.

Julie and her husband, a nurse, realized they might need to shell out the cash for a new laptop for their daughter since the only other computer they owned was ancient, and might not have been able to run the programs needed to manage streaming video classes in real-time.

However, after about a week,, Isabella was able to get a laptop of her own from Ortiz Middle. Her mom thought she was able to receive one earlier than some of her friends because Isabella is autistic, and the school had a small number of computers on hand to give out to students with special needs.

“When we opened up her laptop, and it was all set up with the programs that they were using and everything, I said ‘Oh thank you Jesus!’ Because if I had to try to put all this on myself, on my own equipment at home, I would be completely lost,” Julie said.

Clearly, the coronavirus has ushered-in a new age of digital learning for districts across the state. HISD’s Chief Technology Officer Scott Gilhousen said the district intends to make sure all its students have access to school-owned computers and tablets throughout the pandemic and even after it is over.

How much all those good intentions will cost and where the money will come from are still unclear.

In addition to the yet-to-be-determined future costs of data packages for the hotspots distributed to families who can’t otherwise afford internet access, HISD’s tech office is staring down the reality that screens will break, keyboards will quit working, cats will chew through power cords and other issues will inevitably crop up around any device’s lifespan.

Schools on already lean budgets won’t just have to pay for replacements for devices that students lose or abscond with (between three and 3.5 percent of HISD’s high school laptops were lost every year pre-pandemic). They are also looking at repair and parts costs for the units due to less-than-cautious handling from students.

Then there’s the relatively short life of any computer: Even laptops and tablets handled with the utmost care still tend to wear down after about five years.

“In four more years, we’re going to have to replace these devices,” Gilhousen said of the 113,500 new computers and tablets purchased by HISD since the pandemic began.

There’s no telling right now how much those repairs and replacements will end up costing. There will be personnel costs as well as the district will eventually need to beef-up its tech support staff to be able to take care of all these devices.

“A campus may at one time have only had maybe 100 computers, and say it was a school of 700 kids. Now all of a sudden, they’ve got 700 computers,” Gilhousen said.

There Will Be Breakdowns

Right now, there are approximately 144,582 total computers or tablets in the hands of HISD students according to Gilhousen. Since the pandemic hit, the district bought a mixture of laptops, Chromebooks and tablets with financial from the first federal CARES Act relief package passed in the early days of the coronavirus crisis.

The CARES Act sent $1.3 billion in education funding Texas’ way, some of which made its way to the Texas Education Agency’s Operation Connectivity program and to Harris County. The county and TEA have committed millions of those federal relief dollars to help cover the cost of the new tablets and computers HISD purchased. Of the $52.9 million HISD spent on those devices, the district will get back about $31.7 million in reimbursements.

Most of these newly-purchased devices went out to the district’s elementary and middle school students who didn’t already have access to a computer or tablet at home once it became clear that virtual learning was going to be a reality for at least the rest of the 2020 school year.

The specific devices vary by grade level. “For the Pre-K to [2nd grade] for the time being, our choice is iPads,” Gilhousen said. “Grades three through eight are Chromebooks-slash-PCs, and all our high schools are Windows laptop PCs.” Students don’t need printers at home since assignments are given out digitally and can be turned in via email and the school’s online learning software.

Even with computer needs sorted out, though, some families didn’t have strong enough internet connections to handle constantly streaming video for online classes. Others didn’t have the internet at home in the first place.

One of the silver linings of Houston’s biggest pre-pandemic disaster, Hurricane Harvey, was that it led Sprint to donate 10,000 Wi-Fi hotspots to high school students across the district who didn’t have internet access at home.

But families with a Sprint hotspot still felt the pinch — those hotspots came with a data cap put in by Sprint of 10 gigs a month. This was enough to handle submitting homework assignments online and doing research for projects on the web, but they weren’t equipped to handle hours on end of Zoom video classes day-in and day-out. The hotspots wouldn’t shut off completely after hitting the 10 gig cap, but the internet speeds would slow to a frustrating crawl.

And as soon became apparent, the data load from streaming live video and doing all assignments digitally quickly became a strain on even those families who already had the internet at home.

Gilhousen said HISD continued to work with families on their internet needs. The first step was to let them know about Xfinity’s low-cost “Internet Essentials” plan, which offered enough bandwidth for digital learning for $10 a month.

For families that still couldn’t afford that reduced-cost plan, the district rushed to purchase 38,700 new Wi-Fi hotspots with unlimited data. Those were mostly given out to elementary and middle school students, as well as any high-schoolers with one of the data-capped Sprint models whom the district saw were bumping up against or hitting that 10 gig a month limit. CARES Act dollars will cover about $4.3 million of the $7.1 million the district spent on hotspots, and the TEA’s Operation Connectivity helped lower HISD’s monthly service charge from $37.99 per hotspot down to $15.

What if Students Don't Give Back Their Computers?

Making sure every student has access to a remote learning device going forward won’t be easy.

First, there’s the issue of making sure district computers and tablets stay in the hands of students and get returned on schedule. Gilhousen said graduating seniors are required to turn in their laptops on the last day of classes. Before the pandemic, all students with laptops were required to turn in their computers at the end of the school year unless they were taking summer school classes or were in certain advanced classes or college prep programs.

Last year, HISD decided not to collect any devices from students once the 2019-20 school year wrapped up, although it did try and track down devices from students they knew left the district. In a given year pre-pandemic, Gilhousen said around 3 percent of high schoolers’ laptops didn’t get returned. It’s unclear what the missing device rate with HISD’s middle and elementary schools will be, since this summer will be the first time those devices will be collected.

HISD high-schoolers have been required to pay the district $25 once a school year in order to get their laptops, which Gilhousen said helps pay for computer repairs, devices reported as stolen and computers provided to students whom the district loses contact with. So far, elementary and middle school students haven’t been charged any fee to help cover those costs, and the usual fee for high schoolers was waived this year.

If students don’t turn in their tablet or computer at the end of this school year, “at this moment in time the district has chosen, since we’re in a pandemic year, that we wouldn’t necessarily be collecting any monetary funds from parents,” Gilhousen said.

Middle and elementary school students will eventually have to pay an annual fee for their devices as high schoolers do in normal years. Gilhousen’s team is still figuring out exactly how much to charge them since the iPads and Chromebooks most of those students receive cost much less than the Windows laptops.

As for the repair process, it differs depending on the type of device. Malfunctioning iPads get sent off to Apple, and repairs for Chromebooks and Windows laptops are handled by Netsync Network Solutions, a local IT company under contract with HISD to help service district computers.

Some devices can get fixed on-site at schools by the Netsync workers who rotate across campuses, but the trickiest repairs for Chromebooks and laptops are handled off-site. When students drop off their tablets or computer at their school to get repaired, they’re given a replacement device, which they then keep.

Right now, HISD doesn’t have a dedicated full-time staff member at each campus to help coordinate the repair process and to manage inventory, Gilhousen said, and the IT department is working on a proposal for how many more tech support staffers it will need to keep up with these computers and tablets going forward. While he said the ideal situation would be hiring a dedicated tech person for each school, Gilhousen doubts that’d be feasible given that would mean adding about 230 full-time employees to the payroll.

“We may not necessarily be able to cover every elementary school, but it’s possible that some of those can be shared, so maybe they’re there for two and a half days a week at one campus and then two and a half days at another campus,” Gilhousen said.

Federal Funds in a Texas Limbo

Figuring out how to pay for all these tech-related expenses would be a lot easier if there was more clarity around how and when the Texas Legislature will give out the nearly $18 billion in funding for Texas schools Congress put into the past two COVID-19 relief bills.

But if the Texas Senate’s first stab at a budget is any indication, those dollars won’t be funneled directly into school districts in the Lone Star State anytime soon. In fact, the state Senate’s initial budget proposal doesn’t include any of that additional federal school funding.

In a statement to the Houston Press, TEA didn’t shed any light on what exactly is keeping that money in limbo. The agency's statement only said that “TEA anticipates these funds being distributed to school systems soon,” once the Texas Legislature “receives guidance from the federal government related to these funds.”

The Texas State Teachers Association, Texas’ main educators union, isn’t thrilled about the delay. “The emergency federal money was not intended to be spent on other programs,” said TSTA President Ovidia Molina in a statement after the Texas Senate approved its first budget bill. “It was not intended to be used to replace state education funding to help the Legislature balance the new state budget. And it wasn’t provided to Texas to remain unspent while school districts continue to struggle to recover from this health crisis.”

HISD obviously didn’t have the costs associated with maintaining tens of thousands of extra computers baked into its budget forecasts for the years ahead before the pandemic. Gilhousen said that in lieu of an influx of money to the district from federal stimulus funds, HISD will likely need to rely on more grants from charities like the Moody Foundation, which pitched in $1 million to HISD in September, to repair and replace these remote learning devices and to pay for hotspot data packages.

There’s also a chance that HISD may have to resort to putting a bond initiative on the ballot in the future to help cover those costs, Gilhousen said.

To help meet students’ device needs while HISD waits on the latest wave of federal funding to get sorted out, Harris County recently donated an additional 5,000 hotspots. HISD is also purchasing 15,000 more computers and tablets to add to its stockpile of backups for when student devices need repairs.

HISD didn’t add any new full-time IT positions this school year, but the 2021-22 budget will include funding for 12 new employees to manage devices at 12 district middle schools. Gilhousen said the federal stimulus money for Texas schools that’s currently in limbo could help pay for more on-campus tech support in the future, but they can’t make any plans for that until the state decides how the cash will get distributed.

Regardless of whether or not students opt for all in-person classes or virtual schooling (which HISD still plans to offer for the 2021-22 school year), Gilshousen said HISD’s goal is to ensure that every student has access to a take-home school-issued computer or tablet if they need one.

“We understand the need, because we don’t necessarily know when a school may need to close,” he said, citing flooding, natural disasters and environmental concerns like air quality issues due to chemical plant fires as just a few potential local crises that may warrant keeping kids home and switching back to virtual schooling until conditions improve.

Julie Vazquez knows that the need for quality computing devices for HISD students is only going to grow. At the start of this school year, Daniel chose to keep taking classes remotely, so he’s still regularly using his school-issued laptop. Isabella is still using her HISD laptop every day as well, even though she chose to start taking classes in-person again starting in December.

“They still do the work on the computer, but in the classroom,” she said of Isabella’s algebra class.

Julie said she’s grateful that HISD has been able to support her kids with the technology they need to keep learning through this crisis, and knows her children are lucky compared to so many others. She mentioned several nearby families who rely even more on the equipment the district has been able to provide, some who definitely couldn’t afford a new computer, and one mom struggling to get by with four school-age kids. “They didn’t have any technology,” Julie said. “She didn’t even have internet at home.”

She hopes the district is able to figure out how to keep these computers in the hands of students who need the extra support in the years to come, especially in her southeast Texas neighborhood where she’s lived her whole life and met her husband at Milby High years ago.

“They’re definitely going to need more money from the state to keep all this stuff up,” Julie said, “Because then what happens? At HISD, money is always an issue.”

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