Pilot program provides high-speed internet to Santa Ana Unified students

Vans equipped with Wi-Fi served as mobile hot spots for Santa Ana students struggling with internet access.
SANTA ANA, Calif. (KABC) -- School bus drivers turned into high-speed internet providers Tuesday as part of a pilot program to improve Wi-Fi access to students going to school via distance learning during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Eleven-year-old Brianna Montes is a Santa Ana Unified School District student experiencing a barrier to education made more difficult to overcome by distance learning.

"The Wi-Fi was too slow, and I couldn't do any of my work because it would log me off of my computer," Montes said.

The Sierra Preparatory Academy student said it was impossible for her and her siblings, seven students total, to log on and go to school all at the same time.

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"I have a lot of siblings and they all connect to it and if I connect to it, it logs me out because there's too much people," Montes said.

Poor access to high-speed internet is not a new problem in low-income communities, but the COVID-19 pandemic is bringing more attention to the digital divide.

An image out of Salinas showing two young girls outside a Taco Bell using the restaurant's Wi-Fi to do their school work went viral. Staff at their school district says they have since provided the students' family with wireless hotspots.

In Santa Ana, school district staff say they've taken dozens of calls a week. Sixty percent of those having to do with connectivity issues. That's bad in a district looking at virtual teaching models long-term because the COVID-19 testing positivity percent there is four times higher than that of Orange County.

Vans with JFK Transportation arrived to help Tuesday.

"I saw the bus and I'm like, 'Oh there's gonna be Wi-Fi," Montes said.

The president of JFK Transportation, Kevin Watson, said it was about giving back to the community he and his drivers grew up and lived in. It also helped keep his drivers employed as in-person learning, sports and other school events requiring transportation continued on hold.

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"We're a local company within Santa Ana. We grew up in Santa Ana, so it's a pleasure that we're able to give back to our friends and our family and even our neighbors," Watson said.

School bus drivers turned into mobile hotspot providers.

The pilot program rolled out Tuesday with five vans, but has the potential of growing to 150 units, each able to reach 200 students within a radius the distance of three-and-a-half football fields.

Montes noticed the 5G speed immediately.

"It was way, way, way faster," Montes said.

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"It's a great feeling. We're blessed, and so it's a blessing for us to bless others during this time," Watson said.

Within minutes, Brianna's district-provided Chromebook connected automatically and she went to school.

"It's making my life way easier. I can do my work without no interruptions. It's way better," Montes said.

A school district spokesperson said within two weeks, staff hopes to have identified the areas with the greatest need for improved connectivity and have the mobile hot spots set up to help students.
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