Madam President, each year during the month of August, I look forward to traveling across my state, my very big state, to spend time with my constituents.
It is the best way to learn first-hand how the laws and programs that we enact here are working, and to receive the feedback on legislation being considered by the Congress in the future. And, what I can do to better help the folks back home.
Now a typical state work period involves dozens of face-to-face events from every corner of my state, covering all ages, professions, and walks of life.
Last August I spent time talking with my constituents about everything from the Debbie Smith Act and GI benefits for student veterans to project safe neighborhood grants and the US-Mexico-Canada trade agreement.
Bu, as we all know, 2020 has been anything but typical. And this August was no exception.
These big, in person, events have been replaced with virtual ones with face to face meetings which now involve wearing masks, social distancing and a heavy dose of hand sanitizer. Instead of the broad range of policies we might normally discuss, almost every one of them centered on the impact of COVID-19. No big surprise there.
I have heard from mayors, teachers, food bank employees, healthcare workers, restaurant owners, energy workers and countless others about how the resources that we have been providing them have helped them through this pandemic. From the Rio Grande Valley to Amarillo, on opposite ends of our state, from Tyler to Orange in the eastern part of the state and all points in between I masked up and met with Texans who are working overtime to keep their communities safe and to provide for their families.
All the while I continued to hold virtual conversations and telephone town halls to hear from my constituents and share information about what we are doing to be helpful to them.
These conversations, as I said a moment ago, always help me better understand the effectiveness of the legislation we passed and provide valuable feedback about what is needed in the next coronavirus relief bill.
With the school year now officially underway in most of Texas, additional support for our students and teachers is one of my top priorities. I have had the chance to speak with K-12 students and teachers in Odessa, Lubbock, and Canyon, and college students and administrators in Angelo State University in San Angelo, as well as Texas Tech University and Texas Tech Health Science Center in Amarillo.
Some joined socially distanced on campus and others connected virtually. I was able to hear from both students and teachers about this unprecedented school year and the challenges, the extra challenges brought on by COVID-19. Whether in-person online or some conversation of the two, education looks a lot different this year and we need to provide schools with the funding to keep kids in the classroom safe and those at home on track for a great education.
Congress has already passed $30 billion in emergency relief for education, including more than $2.6 billion for Texas. This funding has helped our school districts, colleges, and universities, prepare for the fall but to be honest, more is needed. For those learning in person, additional funding can cover cleaning services and equipment to prevent children from catching and spreading the virus. For those learning virtually it can provide additional hardware and Internet hotspots so they could do their studies online.
I visited one high school in Ector County, that’s Odessa, Texas, where they are using a blended or hybrid in-person and online instruction model. Ector County ISD began this year with online instruction for students who have internet access at home and in-person instruction for those that did not. Of the roughly 33,000 students in the district, about 4,200 were in the classroom on the first day. And I can assure you it is not the only school district in Texas who’s students have difficulty accessing the technology needed to learn from home.
More than two million Texas households don’t have reliable internet access. And it is leaving our students on the wrong side of the digital divide. Internet access is no longer a luxury or just a convenience, it has become a necessity and we need to do more to ensure that students across Texas and across the nation have access to reliable broadband. Now, the CARES Act, which we passed in March, provides some relief on this front. It gave libraries $50 million in grants for digital connections. The demand for these funds was much higher than was available and it became obvious we need to do more to help those who are on the wrong side of the digital divide.
The senator for West Virginia, Senator Manchin and I teamed up to include and introduce the Access Internet Act, which would provide funding to bot the Department of Education and libraries to make reliable internet a reality. In addition to supporting virtual learning this would also make access to Telehealth move available to families. This has really been one of the most surprising positive developments out of this pandemic and that is actually greater access to healthcare through Telehealth, both physical and mental health services online.
Our bill includes funding for healthcare providers, including the Department of Veterans Affairs, to get more patients connected so they can utilize these Telehealth services. As we make a push for progress on the next relief bill, I will continue fighting for resources for our students and teachers. And that includes reliable access to the internet.
Despite this August work period looking much different than years prior I was still able to connect with tens of thousands of Texans virtually and over the phone and safely meet many of them in-person. As I traveled I was able to see how schools, our healthcare facilities, our food banks, our local governments and more have been able to use the federal coronavirus funding provided for in the CARES Act.
The feedback and insight that I received was invaluable to my work in the Senate and it is more important than ever as we continue negotiations on the next coronavirus relief bill.
This is going to be a busy month in the Senate. We need to pass legislation to bolster our response to this virus, support our students and teachers, help those in need of financial assistance and ensure that our healthcare response remains robust.
We are just three weeks away from the end of the fiscal year, including a government shutdown unless we can reach an agreement on a funding bill. And complicating matters even further we are at the peak of hurricane season, which may not seem such as big a deal here in D.C. but I guarantee we have our eyes on these tropical storms out in the Gulf of Mexico that could well end up on shore.
Hurricane Hanna, for example, struck South Texas in July and hit our farmers and producers hard, as well as flooding out many, many, homes and displacing families. And then, a couple of weeks go, Hurricane Laura tore through the Gulf of Mexico. Though the brunt of Laura hit our neighbors in Louisiana, for which we are very sorry, we are very glad that it did little damage in southeast Texas. But it still did some significant damage. I was able to join the governor, lieutenant governor and Senator Cruz for a visit to Orange, to survey the damage and speak with local officials about the impact of the storm.
Madam President, I am committed to providing my constituents in Texas with the resources needed to recover from whatever this hurricane season may bring and I will be keeping a close eye on the weather forecast as we move through what has already been an active hurricane season.
So, Madam President, we have a lot of work to do in the next few weeks. Though we weren’t able to make progress on a coronavirus bill in July, I was on almost virtually daily conference calls with the White House and Secretary Mnuchin talking about the way forward. And I am more optimistic today than I have been to this point that we will, ultimately, reach an agreement. I hope my colleagues have also heard from their constituents about how important relief is and that we can come together at such a critical point in our fight against COVID-19.
Madam President, I yield the floor and I would note the absence of a quorum.
Editor’s Note: The above commentary was given by U.S. Sen. John Cornyn on the floor of the Senate on Sept. 8, 2020.
This story was originally published by Rio Grande Guardian.
Ector County ISD is a member of the Texas School Alliance.