This story has been updated.
San Antonio organizations were in the middle of studying the city’s digital divide when the coronavirus crisis made the gap between those with the internet and those without it impossible to ignore.
As thousands of students and parents were ordered to stay home in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the lack of internet access by a fourth of the city’s residents became undeniably pressing, said Brian Dillard, chief innovation officer for the City of San Antonio.
“It became more about action and solutions than identifying the need,” Dillard said. “Overnight it went from academia to implementation, and really forced us to hurry that initiative.”
The survey portion of the study wrapped in February after the City collected more than 8,000 responses. The responses were sent to the University of Texas at San Antonio researchers for analysis, and findings were meant to be presented to the City Council this month — but the study has been put on hold due to the pandemic.
Recognizing thousands of local students were unable to access their digital classrooms, VIA Metropolitan Transit offered to partner with the City, the San Antonio Housing Authority, San Antonio Independent School District, and Northside Independent School District to help alleviate some of this need.
The five agencies have collaborated to get mobile Wi-Fi service to students using 26 VIA’s paratransit service vans equipped with high-speed Wi-Fi networks. The VIA vans’ Wi-Fi is accessible from 100 feet to 200 feet of the vehicle. Last week the vans were rolled out to seven SAHA locations, bringing internet access to about 4,000 San Antonio students.
The vans are parked daily for three-hour increments from Monday through Friday. The times were parceled between SAHA locations to allow the vans to visit more than one location a day, said VIA President and CEO Jeff Arndt.
As VIA is one of the city’s largest provider of free Wi-Fi, Arndt said he was already discussing the digital divide with VIA’s Vice President of Tech and Innovation Steve Young who was in discussions with SAISD. Shortly after all San Antonio school districts implemented learning from home in March, Arndt said he received a call from VIA Trustee Akeem Brown who was worried about the students who didn’t have internet access and asked if VIA could do anything.
Arndt turned to Young, and the two contacted SAHA to find out which housing locations needed help, Arndt said.
Tiffany Grant, chief of staff for SAISD, said Young touched base with her a few weeks ago to discuss the collaboration. While SAISD was able to deploy more than 40,000 devices and more than 4,000 Wi-Fi hotspots into the community, that doesn’t help everyone who lacks access to the internet.
“A partnership like this helps us reach our students virtually,” Grant said. “Our efforts will be further-reaching because of this partnership.”
With more than 6,500 children living in SAHA communities – many of whom attend SAISD schools – SAHA was glad to partner in this initiative, said Ana Margarita “Cha” Guzman, chair of the board for SAHA. A decade ago, the internet was a luxury; it’s a necessity for today’s learning needs, she said.
Guzman said SAHA is also thinking about what’s next after the pandemic – and wants to work to get the internet to all of its residents.
Guzman isn’t alone in thinking of the long term; Grant said SAISD would love to be able to see all its students have internet access after the pandemic.
While the vans will need to go back to their regular use after the pandemic, Arndt said he hopes this period will bring about other solutions to the digital divide.
Others have also taken up the call to help provide internet access. Spurs Give, the nonprofit arm of Spurs Sports and Entertainment, has arranged free access to Wi-Fi from the AT&T Center parking lot daily from 8 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. in Lot 3, and Harlandale Independent School District has set up free Wi-Fi zones around its district.
The City’s Digital Inclusion Task Force, formed at the start of the stay-home measures to help deal with the digital divide, will continue to bring agencies together to work on the issue, Dillard said.
“We have about 20 agencies among that group,” Dillard said. “We’re working to identify and align which resources are out there for the San Antonio community.”