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Watch: Local officials, legislators and residents discuss the future of rural Texas

Broadband access, hospital closures, supporting students in rural schools and the challenges posed by COVID-19 were top of mind at The Texas Tribune’s symposium on rural Texas.

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The Texas Tribune held a weeklong virtual symposium on the challenges and opportunities facing rural Texans Nov. 9-13, bringing together lawmakers, local public officials and other natives of rural Texas to discuss some of the issues impacting rural communities across the state, including broadband access, rural hospital closures, supporting students in rural schools, the economic consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic, policy priorities heading in to the 87th legislative session and more.

Watch all of the conversations from the symposium and read highlights from the discussions below.

Rural lawmakers discuss their priorities heading into the 87th legislative session

When the 87th Texas legislative session begins in January, lawmakers — and especially those representing rural areas — will face a number of hurdles due to the coronavirus pandemic and the resulting economic downturn. At the top of the agenda for state Sen. Chuy Hinojosa, D-Edinburg, and state Reps. Tracy King, D-Batesville; Geanie Morrison, R-Victoria; Drew Springer, R-Muenster; and James White, R-Hillister, is increasing access to broadband in rural areas. As many aspects of work, schooling and health care have moved online since March, the pandemic has highlighted the inequitable access to broadband by many rural communities.

Since the state budget is expected to be tight, the lawmakers told Ross Ramsey, the Tribune’s executive editor, higher education funding, increasing access to health care, rural hospital support and infrastructure investment are some of their top agenda items for the upcoming session to support rural communities in their districts.

With the population of rural Texas steadily declining as the state faces a redistricting cycle, the lawmakers also cited representation of rural Texans as a top concern. White told Ramsey that “it’s important that we continue to have strong rural voices in the Texas Legislature and throughout state government.”

This session is presented by Texas Rural Funders and supported by Texas Farm Bureau, Water Grows, Texas Corn Producers Association, Texas Municipal League, Raise Your Hand Texas, Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association, Texas Agriculture Council, Texas Tech University and Office of Public Insurance Counsel.

Educators and school officials break down the challenges faced by rural schools and students as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic

Rural school districts face different challenges than their urban and suburban counterparts as they struggle to keep staff members, educate students virtually on spotty internet and ensure staff and teachers are safe in their buildings — all while dealing with financial struggles.

Donna Hale, superintendent of Miami Independent School District, Georgina C. Pérez, member of the Texas State Board of Education, and state Rep. Gary VanDeaver, R-New Boston, spoke with the Tribune’s public education reporter, Aliyya Swaby, about how state leaders can do more to bolster public schools in rural regions, including continuing to fund them during an economic crisis.

They emphasized lack of broadband access as one of the main barriers to online learning. Perez, who served as a teacher and administrator for more than 10 years, said another challenge rural schools are facing is retaining great teachers.

The state budget is likely to be at the center of the upcoming legislative session, VanDeaver said. While he believes there will be budget cuts to education, “how we do that and do the least damage possible to our school districts, students and teachers is going to be the priority,” he said.

This session is presented by Texas Rural Funders and supported by Raise Your Hand Texas.

University leaders discuss enrollment and meeting the needs of students at rural higher education institutions

Higher education has been rattled by the pandemic and rural colleges and universities are no exception. In conversation with the Tribune’s higher education reporter, Kate McGee, Brenda Kays, president of Kilgore College; Mike Reeser, chancellor and CEO of Texas State Technical College; and Sandra Woodley, president of the University of Texas Permian Basin, shared how lack of technology and broadband access has amplified the challenges for students in rural communities to to stay on track to graduate.

When discussing the shift to online, Reeser said Texas State Technical College has implemented safety measures to allow for some training to be done in person. Kays and Woodley said the shift to online has also provided an opportunity to adapt to a new style of learning that includes recorded lectures and online modules for an effective use of time.

As Texas prepares for the next legislative session, the three leaders said lawmakers need to prioritize funds to provide high-quality remote classes and ensure equal access to postsecondary education for all students.

This session is presented by Texas Rural Funders and supported by Texas Tech University and the Texas Association of Community Colleges.

Rural hospital closures, telemedicine and the impacts of COVID-19 are top of mind for rural health care providers and lawmakers

State Rep. James Frank, R-Wichita Falls, chair of the House Human Services Committee; Dr. Sudip Bose, an emergency physician working in Fort Stockton and Odessa; and Leticia Rodriguez, CEO of Ward Memorial Hospital in Monahans, discussed the future of rural health care and how the coronavirus pandemic has exacerbated pre-existing problems.

At a time when urban hospitals are ramping up capacity to treat a growing number of patients with COVID-19, rural hospitals are facing financial hardships that have led to hospital closures. Rodriguez said the 25-bed hospital she leads has lost revenue because of delayed surgeries.

Rural hospitals have also struggled to transfer patients.

“In the emergency room when you take care of patients, you stabilize them and you need to get them to a specialist. That doesn’t exist in Fort Stockton,” Bose told Shannon Najmabadi, the Tribune’s women’s health reporter. “Eventually, you have to get them to another destination and sometimes, those hospitals don’t accept them.”

As rural hospitals adjust to a long road ahead, Frank said the fastest and likely best way to account for a lack of specialists and ensure mental health care is to allow for widespread access to telemedicine.

This session is presented by Texas Rural Funders and supported by TORCH - Texas Organization of Rural & Community Hospitals, Meadows Mental Health Policy Institute / The Hackett Center, Texas Rural Health Association, Office of Public Insurance Counsel, TEXAS 2036 and Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Texas.

Broadband experts and providers discuss plans and challenges for closing the digital divide in rural Texas

Rural Texas struggled with broadband access long before the pandemic. Charlie Cano, CEO of Etex Telephone Cooperative; Annette Gutierrez, executive director of the Rio Grande Council of Governments; and Jennifer Harris, Texas state director for Connected Nation, spoke with Chris Cobler, former editor and publisher of the Victoria Advocate, about how to best close the digital divide in rural communities.

As technology evolves and education, medicine and businesses pivot to virtual, they discussed a need for aggressive broadband-centric investments and a support mechanism to maintain and update high-speed internet.

Harris, who was appointed to the governor’s broadband council in 2019, said there’s a significant overstatement of broadband coverage in federal data. Rodriguez, Cano and Harris agreed every community is different and said a meaningful planning process needs to involve participation from internet providers. As communities become more dependent on broadband, Harris said, “There really is no finish line — it’s just to continue tackling the problem, and not even seeing it as a problem, but as a challenge to keep working toward to become better connected as we move toward the future of technology.”

This session is presented by Texas Rural Funders and supported by Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Texas, TEXAS 2036, TORCH - Texas Organization of Rural & Community Hospitals, Meadows Mental Health Policy Institute / The Hackett Center and the Texas Rural Health Association.

Farmers, ranchers and business owners see resilience in the rural Texas economy amid the COVID-19 pandemic

The pandemic has impacted the state’s economy drastically, but Borger Economic Development Corporation’s Katie Lingor, United Ag’s Lindsey Bowers and state Sen. Lois Kolkhorst, R-Brenham, said they have continued to see progress and resilience in rural communities.

“Day-to-day operations, for the most part, weren’t affected because we had to continue to do what we do — and that’s feed, fuel and clothe America,” Bowers told the Tribune’s energy and economy reporter, Mitchell Ferman. Lingor and Kolkhorst agreed unemployment rates did not spike as high as in urban areas due to agriculture, farming and ranching, food production and industrial work.

With oil and gas being the state’s No. 1 economic driver, Kolkhorst and Lingor said the state is not prepared to shift away from fossil fuels. In a presidential debate, now President-elect Joe Biden said he would "transition" from the fossil fuel industry that powers much of the Texas economy. “It would be devastating if Joe Biden delivers on a campaign promise like that,” Kolkhorst said.

This session is presented by Texas Rural Funders and supported by Texas Agriculture Council, Texas Municipal League, Texas Farm Bureau, Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association, Water Grows, Texas Association of Community Colleges and Texas Cattle Feeders Association.

Researchers and experts discuss the race to preserve rural Texas’ natural resources in a period of rapid urbanization

The majority of land in Texas is a farm, ranch or family forest, but these areas are shrinking, due in large part to the rapid growth of the state’s urban and metropolitan areas. Roel Lopez, director of the Texas A&M Natural Resources Institute; Michael Young, senior research scientist at the Bureau of Economic Geology; and Lara Zent, executive director of the Texas Rural Water Association, discussed how Texas is stewarding its natural resources with Texas Highways’ Joe Nick Patoski.

Texas is one of the nation’s leaders in wind energy and water planning, with long-term strategies to ensure water supply for a growing state. While there’s an increasing understanding in the values of rural communities, Young cited poor regulatory structure for land and water management as a main concern. “There’s a lot of areas to improve in getting information to the hands of landowners so that they can make the best decisions for themselves and for the sake of the land,” he said.

This session is presented by Texas Rural Funders and supported by Texas Farm Bureau, Texas Cattle Feeders Association, Texas Agriculture Council, Water Grows, Texas Corn Producers and Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Texas.

Local public officials discuss the challenges and opportunities facing rural Texas communities

The pandemic has shed light on some of the challenges rural Texas communities have long faced, and Merlyn Holmes, Kilgore city councilmember; John Howard, Donley County judge; Bella Rubio, Real County judge; and Anthony Williams, mayor of Abilene, spoke with the Tribune’s CEO Evan Smith on where they see the most potential for growth.

They discussed a fundamental need for broadband access and funding for public and higher education in rural Texas. Holmes, who also serves as the executive director of the Kilgore College Foundation, argued rural schools lack funds to attract and maintain great teachers.

Water was also at the top of the list. Williams told Smith: “West Texas is the food, fuel and fiber of the country,” and water security has the capability to make West Texas economically viable.

Looking ahead to the 87th legislative session, Rubio, Holmes and Howard argued unfunded mandates can be devastating for small counties. “If you’re going to mandate us to do something, then give us the funds to be able to adhere to those mandates,” Rubio said.

This session is presented by Texas Rural Funders and supported by Texas Tech University, TORCH - Texas Organization of Rural & Community Hospitals and Texas Cattle Feeders Association.

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Tribune events are supported through contributions from our investors and members. Though donors and corporate sponsors underwrite Texas Tribune events, they play no role in determining the content, panelists or line of questioning.

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