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Ensuring Equal Access

Committee Creates Internet Solutions for Underserved Student Populations

Stretched across approximately 100 miles of western San Benito County, northern Monterey County, and eastern Santa Cruz County, the Aromas-San Juan Unified School District includes several regions where internet is sketchy at best and, in some cases, nonexistent. 

So when most California schools shut down for in-person learning last March, more than 100 students suddenly found themselves with no feasible way to participate in distance learning. For those students, the challenge was one that a district Chromebook or a low-cost internet service plan couldn’t fix. 

Members of a local service club stepped up to make a difference. 

Rotary San Juan Bautista and school district representatives formed an Internet Access Committee, and driven by the goal of ensuring a secure community WiFi connection and internet connectivity for all students in the Aromas-San Juan Bautista school district service area as soon as possible, Rotary members quickly raised funds to equip five buses with SmartBus technology. Those buses, outfitted with mobile routers capable of providing internet access for up to 100-150 individuals within close proximity, were then positioned at locations throughout the district so that the transmitters — more powerful than traditional home routers — could provide immediate relief for students who couldn’t otherwise get internet access.

Transitioning to distance learning has been challenging for everyone, said Phil Esparza, chairman of the Internet Access Committee, and those challenges are compounded by the realities of parents struggling to work and keep kids engaged in virtual schooling. Not having access to reliable internet shouldn’t be one of the obstacles, said Esparza.

“It has to be a joint effort, at the local, state and federal level, to solve these problems. This is a problem we need to solve,” said Esparza, who serves as operations manager for CSUMB’s World Theater and is also a founding member of El Teatro Campesino. “It is nonpartisan, and in spite of the pandemic, in spite of the fact that we can’t meet in person, we’re continuing our support and activism.”

Reliable internet isn’t just a student need, said Esparza. It’s a chronic problem for the whole community. “If you don’t have a good connection or (you have) no connection, how do you educate your kids from home? How do you use telemedicine?” asks Esparza. “We have to provide the opportunity for everyone to succeed.”

Over time, the Internet Access Committee identified additional families that lacked service, bringing the number of student households with poor or no service to 214. Getting those 214 students online and acquiring nearly 200 Chromebooks to close the district’s equipment shortfall was just the first step: The Access Committee has also secured funding from the federal CARES Act to purchase two professional-grade transmitters that will be installed at San Juan Elementary School and Aromas Elementary School. The range and capacity of those transmitters, which will be installed in a few weeks, will extend the existing fiber ethernet connection at those schools so that students can access stable WiFi connections from the parking lot or nearby street.

In time, the committee hopes to bring a similar setup to public libraries to benefit the community at large. 

For now, the needs are great and the web is complicated: An advocacy subcommittee is reaching out to local elected officials, and working through the details of no fewer than 57 federal programs geared to the development of rural and underserved areas, and working to build partnerships with local internet service providers, nonprofit organizations and entities to close the gap. 

This month, the San Benito County Community Foundation and United Way of San Benito County awarded the SJB Rotary Internet Access Committee a $22,351 grant, which will be used to buy laptops and other connectivity equipment for the district and to further the committee’s work in ensuring internet connectivity for all district students.

“Connecting all students to broadband is the equity issue of our day,” said Access Committee member Wayne Norton, who researched and wrote the grant. “Our work is significant, but we know we are only at the beginning of expanding connectivity to all corners of our community.”

Pictured, Access Committee Chair Phil Esparza, San Juan Bautista Rotary Club President Luis Matchain, and Access Committee member Wayne Norton. Above, bus photo courtesy of Aromas-San Juan Unified School District.