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Houston ISD has not provided at-home internet service to the vast majority of students who relied on a free Verizon program that the district canceled three months ago, leaving some of Houston’s most vulnerable children disconnected.

About 50 of the 1,000 students who were relying on the program for at-home internet have received T-Mobile hotspots that the district offered as a replacement to needy students, according to email records and a district spokesperson. 

HISD officials said the hotspots remain available to students. But district leaders and staff have not successfully coordinated to outfit children with the new service since November.

“If school staff identify a student who needs home internet access, staff should contact the campus technologist so that HISD can provide a hotspot for that student,” HISD Chief Communications Officer Leila Walsh wrote in an email.

HISD promised the T-Mobile hotspots after district leaders opted to end the Verizon program, citing an unacceptable amount of training required for school officials carrying out the effort. Roughly 56,500 students and 2,500 teachers across 36 HISD campuses received iPads or laptops equipped with data plans since the initiative launched in 2020, Verizon officials said.

Most students at participating schools connected their computers at home to wireless internet installed by their families. However, HISD officials determined about 1,000 students regularly used internet service built into the devices for web access, indicating their families may not have wireless internet at home.

Verizon shut off the built-in internet service on its donated devices on Nov. 17, three weeks after HISD decided to no longer participate in the program. Schools and students were allowed to keep the provided laptops and tablets, but their data plans were deactivated.

In the weeks after students lost internet access, HISD officials acknowledged they had fallen short on communicating with families about the hotspot opportunity. HISD Chief Technology Officer Scott Gilhousen told the Abdelraoufsinno in early December that it “will be for us to communicate more with our campuses to inform them that there are opportunities.”

But emails obtained by the Landing through a public records request also show few campus leaders requested hotspots for their students.

In one successful instance, Deady Middle School physical education teacher Bradley Wray emailed Gilhousen directly in early December, citing the technology chief’s comments to the Landing about the availability of T-Mobile service.

“I have identified about 50 students on my campus, Deady MS, who are in need. Could you share more information about the program and steps for applying?” Wray wrote.

Several days later, Wray sent a list of roughly 50 Deady Middle students without home Wi-Fi, and HISD agreed to provide them with hotspots, the emails show. Wray immediately drove to HISD’s central office to pick them up and distributed them to students, he said in an interview.

“I'm certain there's more kids that we just haven't identified,” Wray said. “Maybe they're too embarrassed to admit they don't have home Wi-Fi because that does put you in a vulnerable spot to admit, ‘My family's in poverty.’”

When Burbank Middle School teacher Clara Deshotels-Bujnoch inquired about the T-Mobile hotspots, she got a different result. In a December email with the subject line “Hot Spot Needed,” Deshotels-Bujnoch requested a device, but a campus technology specialist told her hotspots were not available.

Deshotels-Bujnoch forwarded the response to Burbank Principal David Knittle, adding a note that district leaders had promised hotspots. The emails provided to the Landing did not include a response from Knittle. HISD officials said no Burbank Middle students — about 93 percent of whom are classified as economically disadvantaged by the state — have received T-Mobile hotspots.

Aside from the Deady Middle students, HISD provided a hotspot to only one other child, an Attucks Middle School student, district officials said.

The emails obtained by the Landing, which included messages about the T-Mobile hotspots sent or received by school leadership at all former Verizon campuses, did not include any inquiries for the technology other than from Wray and Deshotels-Bujnoch. It is not immediately known whether other district employees requested hotspots through phone calls or other methods of communication.

Wray, who is also a member of HISD’s District Advisory Committee, included information about the T-Mobile hotspots in a December newsletter message he sent out to thousands of teachers and families. Several educators responded to Wray asking for more details, but he said he’s not sure whether they followed up with campus or district staff. Wray also didn’t know whether any employees hit roadblocks in accessing hotspots.

The Verizon devices and wireless data did not cost HISD any money, but state-appointed Superintendent Mike Miles, who assumed the role in June 2023, said the program required educators to participate in training he found unpalatable.

“The free technology comes with strings,” Miles said during a Nov. 9 press conference. “It’s a lot of professional development that’s required, and we’re not going to have anybody from the outside professionally develop our teachers on the quality of instruction, instructional strategies or techniques.”

In an August 2023 message to HISD staff, a Verizon official pushed back against changing the district’s requirements for the initiative, arguing it would “compromise the quality of our program.”

The T-Mobile hotspots HISD promoted as a replacement to the Verizon services cost the district $15 per student per month, the Houston Chronicle reported.

HISD officials said they are looking into more permanent solutions for addressing internet access disparities.

“We are having conversations with community partners so that we eliminate the digital divide for entire neighborhoods, not just individual students,” Walsh said.

Asher Lehrer-Small covers Houston ISD for the Landing and would love to hear your tips, questions and story ideas. Reach him at [email protected].

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Asher Lehrer-Small is a K-12 education reporter for the Abdelraoufsinno. He previously spent three years covering schools for The 74 where he was recognized by the Education Writers Association as one...