New program will offer many students free internet through BBT, with future of remote learning uncertain in Big Bend area schools

FAR WEST TEXAS – Economically disadvantaged students living in the service area of Big Bend Telephone have a new opportunity to get internet service into their homes for free under a state program that kicked off this month. The Texas Education Agency’s Connect Texas program has partnered with local provider BBT to bring free service to qualifying students through the summer of 2024.

The program is intended to improve access to remote learning, just as schools return to session this month and COVID-19 cases are on the rise. Kindergarten through 12th grade students who qualify under the free and reduced lunch requirements are eligible to enroll in the TEACT free internet program to get fixed broadband internet.

BBT was selected as the local internet provider for TEACT, and General Manager and Chief Operating Officer Rusty Moore was eager to participate. “What’s really kind of interesting is that the structure of this is similar to precisely what we did during the pandemic,” Moore said. “That whole mess last year didn’t come with an instruction manual and how-to guide.”

Last year, BBT chose to connect local students to the internet, adding households from Sheffield, Presidio, Valentine, Fort Stockton and anywhere in between to their service. Moore said it was good to hear that kind of action had been formalized this year, “Because frankly, we were doing this out of our own pocket because it was the right thing to do.” This year, those students can be added to the TEACT program, and BBT will be compensated by the program’s funds.

On Thursday, the TEA released new guidelines, which confirmed that districts will be able to enforce quarantine periods for students and outlined remote, online learning rules.

Quarantines will last 10 days after a student first shows symptoms, or 10 days after testing positive, if the student does not show symptoms. However, students whose COVID-19-related illness persists are allowed to learn remotely for up to 20 days. Parents can also choose to keep their student at home for 10 days if they learn the student has had close contact with a COVID-positive person.

Marfa ISD Superintendent Oscar Aguero said that while he can see the guidelines working well for big districts, the mandates are difficult to work with in small districts like his.

Schools have worried about extended absences impacting their funding, and the new guidance seemed to offer some relief — students out for COVID-19 would not be counted against districts, but only if the students were able to have online, live education from teachers in the meantime. Aguero was excited by the news until he saw the fine print.

Teachers cannot offer that online, live teaching at the same time as they are offering in-person classroom instruction. Big districts might be able to afford a separate teacher to instruct online students, but MISD is now scrambling to see if the cost of instructing students online during their quarantines is smaller than the loss in income if they are just marked absent.

The district is now in discussions to see if teachers can meet with students online during their planning periods so that quarantined students can still receive online instruction and be counted as “present” at school. However, as previously reported in The Big Bend Sentinel, the district has had to weigh outcry from teachers against having to provide both online and in-person instruction. This summer, Aguero told the school board that five teachers planned to depart the district if they had to provide a mix of online and in-person teaching.

Efforts to add funding for remote learning in the state Legislature have so far failed, leaving school districts unsure of how to meet the educational needs of sick students. Just as school returns to session, coronavirus cases are rising again in Texas, and those under the age of 12 are still unable to be vaccinated.

In Presidio, Superintendent Ray Vasquez is up against the same challenges as Aguero. “The new TEA Remote Conferencing is something new that just came out last week,” Vasquez explained. “There are still some questions that need further clarification, but we here at Presidio ISD will do everything possible to meet the needs of all our students.” The exact formula of learning for quarantined students in the Big Bend remains to be seen.

Regardless of the status of remote learning in districts in the Big Bend area, Vasquez said that the TEA program to offer free internet through BBT “will definitely be beneficial for our students and parents.”

Earlier this year, BBT began participating in the Emergency Broadband Benefit program, which is another program that offers to reduce internet costs by up to $50. With the addition of the TEACT program, which makes the internet entirely free for qualifying families, Big Bend students are in better positions than ever to access remote learning, or at least the multitude of study tools and resources available through a reliable internet connection.

In the coming weeks, school districts will be provided with more information to share with families about how to enroll in TEACT. Those wishing to participate in the EBB or TEACT programs can contact their school administration with questions.