Harris County to spend $32M for computers and hot spots for students

HOUSTON, Texas (KTRK) -- The digital divide that threatened to leave many Harris County students behind this fall will be dramatically narrowed after a unanimous vote by the Harris County Commissioners Court.

On Tuesday, commissioners voted to allocate $32 million in mostly federal CARES money to provide more than 120,000 mobile hotspots and more than 250,000 devices for students who need for virtual learning during the COVID-19 pandemic.

"This ought to make it very close to getting to that last mile, to get total coverage in Harris County as we can get," said Commissioner Rodney Ellis.

The vote comes at a crucial time for parents, as many public schools are set to start the school year remotely, requiring students to have electronic devices in order to connect with teachers.

The digital divide is something Colin Dempsey knows well. As the Executive Director of Comp-U-Dopt, a non-profit that refurbishes donated computers to distribute to students, he's seen the need firsthand.

"We have 50,000 families in our lottery system alone, and that's only in Harris County. The need is so high, I get call from families and principals saying, 'We don't have the devices we need.'"

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Dempsey showed ABC13 around an unfinished warehouse, where the non-profit is storing some of its refurbished computers and getting ready for another distribution next week. Dempsey praised the commissioners vote but worries it's still not enough. A major issue is that even if the computers are ordered this week, the pandemic has created worldwide shortages.

"Unfortunately, the pandemic is not just a Houston problem. All of the suppliers are trying their best to get supplies, and there's a worldwide demand for those devices," he said.

Staffers at Tuesday's meeting said Chromebooks were indeed hard to come by, but that laptops seemed more readily available. The computers and hotspots will be distributed by each school district to students who have been identified as needing the electronic equipment.

"When you think about it, all of the awful things that have come out of this pandemic, it's a heck of a thing we can get as close to closing the last mile, since the internet was created," said Ellis, who sees this vote as helping solve a consistent problem in many working families.

Most school districts have already sent out surveys to their students about who has and who needs electronic devices, parents are urged to communicate with their individual schools for access.

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