Toyota is driving a new $500,000 effort to close the digital divide in the six school districts surrounding its South San Antonio manufacturing plant, the company announced Thursday.

The Toyota organization awarded a grant to Somerset ISD for $200,000. East Central ISD, Harlandale ISD, South San ISD, and Southwest ISD will each receive $50,000, and Southside ISD will receive $100,000, said Kevin Voelkel, president of Toyota Motor Manufacturing. 

These donations will support new Wi-Fi hotspots, broadband, devices like Chromebooks and iPads, and virtual learning software, Voelkel said.

“As we try to return to some type of normal, it was apparent that our local students are faced with the disadvantages of being victims of the digital divide,” Voelkel said. “This is a major problem for our area schools, and this problem has exposed deeper issues that are a barrier to a good education.”

According to a City survey conducted earlier this year, one in four San Antonio students lacks access to the internet – a problem that was heavily exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic as students moved to distance learning. 

These six districts were selected and awarded based upon their current needs and infrastructure, Voelkel said. Each district is at least 70 percent economically disadvantaged, with some as high as 93 percent, he added.

“Where you live and how much money you have should not determine whether you can participate and be successful at school,” Voelkel said. “At Toyota, we took a hard look at this crisis. We recognize the disadvantages presented to the students right here in … our backyard.”

Samantha Arroyo, an 8th grader at Southside ISD’s Losoya Middle School, said many of her friends and family members did not have computers at home when the pandemic began. Being able to swing by the school and pick one up was very important, Arroyo said.

The donation from Toyota will help Southside ISD pay for the devices it had to buy in order to pivot to online learning, said Losoya 7th grader Joel Jiminez. 

As the technology teacher at Losoya, Megan Stuart said she feels her district would not be able to keep up with student needs if it weren’t for local donations such as Toyota’s. 

Toyota worked with each of the six districts to identify their critical needs to help bridge the digital divide, Voelkel said. The donation will directly impact 56,000 students, he added.

During the virtual event, each of the six school districts’ superintendents took a moment to thank Toyota for their donations. 

Toyota is glad to play a part in addressing the digital divide in San Antonio because everyone deserves access to education, Voelkel said. 

Toyota’s San Antonio plant employs over 2,500 employees and has invested over 2.7 billion dollars locally. The plant focuses on producing Tacoma and Tundra trucks. The Toyota plant on San Antonio’s South Side rolled its first vehicles off the assembly line in 2006.

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Lindsey Carnett

Lindsey Carnett covers the environment, science and utilities for the San Antonio Report.