DONNA — While students, teachers and staff throughout Donna are preparing to return for a uniquely unusual school year, Donna ISD is working hard to finalize and implement a multi-million dollar initiative aimed at expanding internet access for students in one of Hidalgo County’s largest school districts.

“We want to sincerely thank our school board members for supporting this very important initiative,” Donna ISD Superintendent Dr. Hafedh Azaiez said. “They understand that the COVID-19 pandemic has presented us with many challenges, including the inability to reach students who live in areas where internet service is limited or does not exist. This project will have a profound impact on our students’ education as we move forward with online instruction this coming new school year.”

Donna ISD, which is home to 22 schools and about 15,000 kindergarten through 12th grade students, announced plans in May to spend approximately $5.7 million to bridge the tech divide in one of the Rio Grande Valley’s more rural school districts and invest in virtual learning infrastructure in the midst of the RGV’s ongoing COVID-19 crisis.

“With the way things ended in the spring once we announced that the towers were coming in, we were grateful for them doing that for us because we did have a lot of trouble communicating with students and student-athletes toward the end of (last school year),” said Cindy Viesca, the head volleyball coach and interim track and field coach at Donna High.

“We were still trying to send out workouts for our track kids and offseason volleyball not knowing whether or not we would be able to finish competing in our track season. I know some kids were having some issues with their internet connections.”

“In times like this, we’ve got to come together and do what’s best for the community and the students, our student-athletes,” Donna North athletic coordinator and head football coach Juan Cuevas said. “I feel that Donna ISD has done that with this initiative, and it’s going to be a tremendous help. We’re going to start school virtually and we’re going to sports virtually, so it’s definitely going to make things move forward more smoothly.

The initiative includes plans to provide an iPad for each student between kindergarten and second grade and a Chromebook for each student in third grade and up, as well as laptops for faculty members.

The district announced via a May new release, $852,395 of the $5.7 million will be spent on laptops for teachers, $2,981,110 for Chromebooks and $1,926,470 for iPads.

That move has already paid major dividends for Cuevas, Viesca and Donna ISD’s plethora of student-athletes, many of whom were previously unable to keep up with virtual school work and athletic workouts from home.

According to an internal survey conducted by the school district, 52% of Donna ISD students and families said they do not have access to wireless internet at home. Furthermore, of the 48% of students who can access the internet from home, another 12% have unreliable home internet access.

“We’ve come across some challenges where our student athletes didn’t have access to Wi-Fi or have trouble with a device that they could use to communicate. This is definitely going to make the process and transition a lot smoother,” said Cuevas, who graduated from Donna High in 1992 and has spent 23 years as a coach with Donna ISD.

In July, the school district announced plans to double down on its investment in digital infrastructure, purchasing 12 new Wi-Fi towers from Edinburg-based company WiFiRus to place on elementary, middle and high school campuses spread throughout the city.

The Wi-Fi towers, which have started to be put up four at a time at different locations, will provide wireless internet access to all students and faculty within a one-mile radius with hundreds of Wi-Fi hotspots available for those who live outside of the range of the towers.

The total cost of the towers is approximately $3.7 million, bringing Donna ISD’s financial commitments to virtual learning this year to about $9.4 million before the first day of online classes begin.

“A lot of credit goes to our school board, our superintendent and everybody who was involved in making this project and initiative happen for Donna ISD,” Cuevas said. “I think it’s a great investment in our students and in our community and the future education of our students.”

A current Hidalgo County public health order has mandated that all county schools must start the academic year with virtual learning and suspend on-campus instruction and extracurricular activities until Sept. 28 at the earliest.

Football and volleyball coaches at Donna High and Donna North are preparing to begin scrimmages during the first two weeks of October, barring any future scheduling changes.

But in the meantime, coaches and student-athletes have had to find creative ways to keep training and stay in contact, with everyone feeling more prepared for what this school year might throw their way.

“We’re communicating with them through virtual learning and by doing virtual workouts when we can,” Cuevas said. “We’ve been communicating with our football players and having position and staff meetings, so we’ve got things in place. We just have to do them a different way.”

“I’ve been sending out workouts ever since the beginning of June and we did eight weeks of summer workouts through Google Classroom, and then I started our preseason (virtual) volleyball workouts last week on Aug. 3 just as if we were going to start the season,” Viesca said.

“We’re trying to keep it close to what would have been normal for us. Now that they’re aware that this is out there, communication through Google Classroom and they’ve got their devices and phones, and now that we’re getting these Wi-Fi towers and the kids will be getting Chromebooks, it should help us a lot more.”

Email: amcculloch@themonitor.com

Twitter: @ByAndyMcCulloch

Editor’s Note: This story was updated to clarify the size of Donna ISD.