There is no “going back to normal” after the pandemic forced schools to take advantage of technology and distribute devices to all students, said San Antonio Independent School District Superintendent Pedro Martinez during a virtual town hall Wednesday on the future of technology.

“Normal wasn’t that great for a lot of our kids,” he said, citing a digital divide that meant many of SAISD’s students had neither internet access nor devices such as laptops when the the coronavirus pandemic suddenly closed schools in 2020.

“Let’s make a commitment that going forward, no one under our watch will ever have a child that will not have a device that they’ll be able to take home.”

Martinez spoke during a panel discussion on technological innovation in education and workforce development that was part of the Future of Tech Commission’s Texas Town Hall. The panel, moderated by former state Sen. Kirk Watson, also featured Dallas College Chancellor Joe May and Larry Berger, founder and CEO of Amplify Education, a K-12 curriculum and assessment development company.

The Future of Tech Commission is an independent and bipartisan group working with the White House and Federal Communications Commission “to recommend a coordinated tech policy agenda and blueprint for America’s future,” according to its website. The commission is holding town halls with industry leaders, experts, and community groups from across sectors to develop a policy agenda with solutions that can be taken at the local, state, and federal levels, and in partnership with private companies.

During the discussion, Martinez said he’s never been able to figure out why school system officials hesitated to give technology to students and allow them to take it home, a problem many of his colleagues across the country had before the pandemic. Teachers also have been reluctant to use technology. But the demand to use it was there, and the pandemic forced SAISD to do in three weeks what it had planned to do in three years – distribute more than 40,000 devices to all of its roughly 46,000 students. The district handed out another 20,000 devices because some students needed both Chromebooks and iPads, depending on their schoolwork.

Looking back, moving slowly on technological innovation seems shortsighted to Martinez. “Why was I going to take three years?” he said.

About 90% of SAISD students live in poverty, and the school district is one of the areas in the state with the highest poverty density, Martinez said. That only made issuing devices and hotspots to students all the more important at the onset of the pandemic, and continuing that momentum in the future is key.

“The sad part is children with means have always had technology at home, multiple devices,” he said. “If anything, we’re starting to close that gap, and I think we’re getting very creative around the country and here in Texas particularly on how to do it. But I do think we have to recognize it’s a multi-stage, relay race, and I don’t even know what the end looks like.”

But to make expanding broadband internet access easier, Martinez said that federal, state, and local governments need to work together with the private sector. Prior to the pandemic, SAISD started installing its own fiber network across the district, but the effort provided internet access only to school buildings, not the homes of students, Martinez said. The district worked with the City and private companies to find loopholes in state law and offer students internet service plans that cost less than $10 a month.

Martinez compared the struggles of increasing students’ access to technology as “this huge mountain that I get to just incrementally climb.” The pandemic came in like an avalanche and forced schools to either climb higher or step out of the way of progress.

“We’re not on top of the mountain yet, but again we made a huge stride very quickly,” he said.

Brooke Crum covered education for the San Antonio Report.