Verizon Wireless is moving to cancel an internet connectivity program that provided devices and data plans to tens of thousands of Houston ISD students, the result of the district’s lack of commitment to continuing the partnership, company officials said Wednesday.
The change potentially deals a blow to efforts to combat the digital divide in Texas’ largest school district, where about 56,500 students and 2,500 teachers have benefited from the program. Many of the participating HISD schools serve large numbers of Black and Latino students in lower-income neighborhoods, particularly on the district’s north and east sides.
In a statement, Verizon Wireless officials said they have moved to terminate an agreement with HISD that provided free technology to students in 36 schools. Verizon, through a nonprofit known as Digital Promise, has worked with HISD on the initiative since 2020.
“Verizon Innovative Learning has made several attempts to continue its partnership with Houston ISD, and would be delighted to continue the partnership upon their response and demonstrated commitment to the program,” Digital Promise spokesperson Jessica Schuler said in a statement.
On Friday, two days after the Houston Landing broke the news that the partnership was ending, an HISD spokesperson said the district is “continuing the conversation with Verizon.” It is unclear whether HISD has alternate plans to provide computers and internet access to students.
In recent years, Verizon has embarked on a nationwide philanthropic effort to boost student connectivity. Every student and teacher at the 36 participating HISD schools received a device, such as an iPad or Chromebook, and up to a four-year data plan. Verizon also provided a coach to train staff on integrating the new technology into lessons.
An estimated 180,000 out of 1.5 million households in Harris County can’t access high-speed internet, either due to financial barriers or because the infrastructure is lacking, according to the Harris County Office of Broadband.
Meanwhile, a statewide initiative by the Texas Education Agency to get all students online has stalled. Less than 1 percent of Texas students in need received any support through the program, the Houston Landing previously reported.
The digital divide became particularly stark during the pandemic, when many students couldn’t connect to online classes or keep in touch with their teachers.
Houston Education Association President Michelle Williams said the Verizon devices were a lifeline during the pandemic at Forest Brook Middle School, where she taught math until the last school year. She called HISD’s lack of commitment “a slap in the face.”
“A lot of people would assume that, in 2023, most people have access to internet — and they don’t,” Williams said.
In an email obtained by the Houston Landing, a Digital Promise official informed campus leaders Tuesday that program services and data plans will end Nov. 17. HISD can keep iPads and Chromebooks that were donated via the program, the representative said.
“We have valued our partnership with Houston ISD over the last three and a half years, and are disappointed for it to end this way. We wish you the best,” Digital Promise Deputy Director Sara Martinez Crawford wrote in the email.
Update: A Houston ISD spokesman on Friday responded to the Houston Landing’s Wednesday request for comment with a short statement. The story has been updated.
Asher Lehrer-Small covers education for the Landing and would love to hear your tips, questions and story ideas about Houston ISD. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.