Julia Lopez is sitting in her parked car just off U.S. Highway 281 as cars and trucks rush by yards away. Between her car and the busy rural highway is a Southside Independent School District bus – the reason she’s there in the first place.

Every weekday, Lopez loads her four kids into the car and meets the bus so her kids can complete their schoolwork. The bus is one of 15 the Southside Independent School District deploys throughout its district for students who don’t have regular and reliable internet access. Each of Lopez’s children has a school-issued laptop and she has to park within 200 feet of the bus to make sure they can access the Wi-Fi.

“I tell them work hard so we can go eat,” Lopez said in Spanish as she fans herself with a piece of paper. Lopez spends much of the two to three hours by 281 turning her car on to let the air conditioning run and then off to conserve gas.

“I tell them it’s important for them to prepare for their future, so they’re not struggling like me to work,” Lopez said. It’s been difficult to find work while spending so much time making sure her children can connect to the internet for school, she added.

Distant learning near the highway can be challenging. Some days include doing their P.E. off to the side of the road in tall grass. On others, the kids are trying to listen to their instructors over the sounds of their siblings’ laptops and trucks rushing by.

With no internet access at their Southside home, the Lopez family lives the reality of San Antonio’s digitally disconnected. As schools have shifted to online education during the coronavirus pandemic, families without internet access or devices have found themselves at even more of a disadvantage. 

Without home internet, Adrian (middle) and Andrew Lopez attend virtual instruction while their mother, Julia, sits in the driver’s seat. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

The digital divide, which separates those with reliable and affordable internet access and those without, closely follows San Antonio’s City Council district lines and roughly splits the north of the city from the south. Many of those impacted by a lack of internet access go to school on the South and West sides of the city. These low income and rural areas lack the infrastructure needed to supply widespread internet service.

Southside ISD’s Superintendent Rolando Ramirez estimates the district has spent $2 million the past few months distributing devices such as laptops, tablets, and Wi-Fi hotspots to students. Additionally, the buses act as Wi-Fi hotspots at locations around the district to bring connectivity to families such as the Lopez’s.

Ramirez, who has been on the job just three months, was immediately tasked with helping the district’s 5,000 students get online, educated, and even fed. 

“Not having the kids [on campus] is hard,” Ramirez said. “This is one of the hardest situations we’re facing.”

Angelia Kiplinger, an English teacher at Mathey Middle School participates in a virtual class with her students, some of which rely on Wi-Fi from Southside ISD buses to connect. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

Randy Escamilla, SISD director of public relations and community, said the district estimates there are about a dozen families utilizing the district’s bus Wi-Fi solution. He drives around and visits with them all often. Escamilla said he sees the Lopez’s every time.

Over 700 district families have requested hotspots, with about 220 still on a waiting list, Ramirez said. The district ordered 1,000 earlier this summer, but with so many districts asking for hotspots nationwide, the demand is exceeding the supply.

About 25 percent of SISD students will return to in-class learning on Sept. 21, but that will leave many still needing devices, Ramirez said. Even those students who do return to their campuses might continue using their borrowed devices for homework. 

Lopez said her children look forward to being back on campus – doing their schoolwork from the car where there is no easily accessible restrooms has been difficult. The kids miss their friends and classmates, she said. As a single mother, it’s been a hard time for her and the kids, she adds.

SISD is looking for long-term solutions to help the connectivity issues within their district, Ramirez said. The district plans to use the Wi-Fi buses until the end of the year and re-evaluate district needs then.

“For this entire year, we will continue to park the buses out around the district,” Ramirez said. Even after students are back on campuses, Ramirez said the buses will likely remain parked around the district in the evenings for students to complete their homework. Devices will remain checked out on an as-need basis, he said.

SISD administrators are discussing financial aid opportunities with City and County officials to help fund the continued use of the buses, and the devices lent out to students, Ramirez said.

Sixth grade student Andrew Lopez, 12, attends his morning class utilizing a Southside ISD bus from the backseat of his family car. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

Addressing the digital divide is already an issue the City has started to work on with its Connected Beyond the Classroom project, which is currently a collaboration with the San Antonio Independent School District. The City, using more than 1,000 miles of existing fiber-optic cable that runs above and below ground, has begun placing large antennas atop tall vertical structures, including traffic lights, to amplify the signal and make it available for in-home student use by those who wouldn’t otherwise have internet access.

Phase one began in August. Students from six neighborhoods in the Lanier High School attendance zone were given smaller antennas that enable them to log on to their school’s Wi-Fi from home. The internet is subject to SAISD’s firewall restrictions and limited access to only district websites and content. These restrictions allow the service to conform with Texas municipal code, which prohibits municipalities from competing with internet service providers.

Phase two will focus on expansion and replication across other areas – such as in SISD and other districts in need, said the City’s Chief Innovation Officer Brian Dillard. The project is being financed with money from the $27 million in federal funding the City received through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act.

The areas Connected Beyond the Classroom is first focusing on having the infrastructure in place, but also people who need help connecting to it, Dillard said.

“The main protocols for choosing where we focused first came down to equity and looking at where disconnectivity rates were highest based on reports, as well as identifying where vertical assets were in place,” Dillard said.

Meanwhile, the county has allocated $225,000 to Southside ISD, which has the potential to be matched by state funds through the Texas Education Agency’s Operation Connectivity. Operation Connectivity is a partnership between Gov. Greg Abbott, the TEA, and state school districts to connect all of Texas’ 5.5 million public school students with a device and reliable internet connection in the face of the coronavirus pandemic.

The $225,000 comes from the funds the county received as part of the federal CARES Act. In total, the county approved allocating $3.5 million to 15 Bexar County school districts.

Escamilla said Southside ISD does plan to file for matched funding before the Oct. 1 deadline.

Tuesday, the Bexar County Commissioners Court also approved a partnership between the County and the Southwest Research Institute to design and implement a private LTE network, dubbed BiblioTech Connect, within the Southwest Independent School District.

Laura Cole, the county director of BiblioTech, said this initial network within Southwest ISD is a pilot project to test proof-of-concept.

“If this is going to be a viable solution for us in the future, we might be able to scale this up throughout the county,” Cole said, noting that would potentially include areas such as SISD.

Until viable long term solutions can become a reality, Southside ISD is doing what it can to help keep its students – and families like the Lopez’s – learning, Ramirez said.

“We will just continue providing those services, we will continue serving our students.”

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Lindsey Carnett

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