Following a leadership change at the start of the current school year, South Bend Community School Corporation in Indiana added Wi-Fi capabilities to its school buses, as part of a larger effort to overhaul its transportation department.
Superintendent Todd Cummings and Chief Operations Officer Rene Sanchez, who also serves as the transportation manager, began working in their respective positions only six months ago. Since then, the duo has implemented phase one of the modernization project by adding Wi-Fi to the fleet of school buses.
Cummings explained that the district provides a Google Chromebook to every middle and high school student because of the increasing number of online assignments. By being a one-to-one district, he explained that the district uses the Google Classroom web service on a regular basis to streamline file sharing between students and teachers. The district is also currently implementing a learning management tool.
“Another big push is literacy. We provide eBooks, and we are hoping students will use the internet service as a curiosity seeker,” Sanchez explained. “We have firewalls, so they are not going to get too deep into trouble by surfing the internet. Hopefully, they can find something they are interested in and they can read when they don’t have homework.”
District officials realized there was a great need for Wi-Fi capabilities on school buses, especially during long trips to athletic events, where access to wireless is limited.
“We simply asked the question because we are going to do what’s right for all of our students: Can we put Wi-Fi on buses?” Cummings noted.
The first school buses were outfitted with the Wi-Fi routers in November. Sanchez explained that Wi-Fi routers in the school buses operate similarly to cell phones by drawing a signal from local radio towers.
However, students will only be able to access the South Bend signal by using their Chromebooks, so the Wi-Fi capabilities won’t extend to student or bus driver cell phones. A geofence also won’t allow for occupants in passing vehicles to access the signals.
Currently, 10 percent of the district’s 200 buses are equipped with the Wi-Fi routers. Going forward, every bus that is purchased through the district’s bus replacement plan will have Wi-Fi already installed on it.
“We’re viewing it as an essential learning device. It’s a learning tool for the students,” Sanchez explained.
The 20 buses that are currently equipped with Wi-Fi primarily transport middle and high school routes across the district. But the Wi-Fi isn’t solely to be used for homework time on the routes, which last an average of 45 to 60 minutes. Additional benefits are possible.
“If you are at a soccer or football game and you’re waiting to play, it lets you use your bus hotspot to do your homework or read a book,” Cummings said.
Sanchez added, “Or in the case that we go to a neighboring school district and we can’t log in on their Wi-Fi in the gym, the coach can have his/her players wait outside in the bus while doing their homework, as opposed to [hearing], ‘I can’t do my homework because I don’t have Wi-Fi at the gym.’”
Based on the district’s replacement cycle, South Bend is expected to receive an additional 10 buses throughout this year. The Wi-Fi capabilities cost the district $1,527.85 per bus for parts, installation and the NetCloud manager.
Currently, the transportation department is funding the wireless network on a per bus basis. However, the district is hoping to receive E-Rate funds from the Federal Communications Commission. The program currently provides discounted telecommunications services to eligible schools and libraries in the U.S. However, legislative efforts to add school bus Wi-Fi as an approved use of funds have so far been unsuccessful.
Who was going to fund it was not an issue for me. We just needed to figure out how we were going to do it and get it done.
— Todd Cummings, Superintendent, South Bend Community School Corporation
Sanchez said if the E-Rate funding comes through, the district will only have to pay 10 percent of the total cost of installing Wi-Fi throughout the entire fleet. That money would come out of the IT department’s budget.
“And if [E-Rate] doesn’t happen, then we will have to figure it out and outfit the rest of the buses over the next three years,” Sanchez said. “Hopefully, the cost will come down as more and more districts start doing it. Either way, we would like to get all of our buses outfitted within the next three years.”
For now, Sanchez confirmed that the funds will continue to come out of the transportation department’s budget.
Either way, Cummings said he isn’t worried.
“I was less concerned about where the funding was coming from, and more concerned with what are we doing and are we doing what’s right for our students?” Cummings explained. “Who was going to fund it was not an issue for me. We just needed to figure out how we were going to do it and get it done.”
Related: School Bus Wi-Fi is a Turning Point in Transportation Technology
Related: Senate Bill Pushes FCC to Fund School Bus Wi-Fi
Related: Google Rural School Bus Wi-Fi Program Seeks to Close Homework Gap
Related: New Indiana and Kentucky Legislation Fights Illegal School Bus Passing
Related: Indiana School Bus Attendant Killed in Crash
The next step the district plans to consider is parking school buses in communities, so students can access the Wi-Fi at home. Sanchez explained that some bus drivers could take the buses home either for an evening or on a Saturday afternoon, especially during prime homework hours, so that students who otherwise don’t have Wi-Fi access could have it.
“The goal would be to be able to post ahead of time where the buses are going to be, so that students would know they are available,” Sanchez explained. “As far as the bandwidth, we have been able to identify that the Wi-Fi has a reach of over 300 feet in any direction.”
In addition to adding Wi-Fi to the school buses, Cummings said the transportation department is making serious strides under Sanchez’s leadership. The staff has also implemented dashboards that help to better streamline and monitor customer service.
Cummings is now able to monitor the bus locations and when students arrive at home at night. He said the district is also about to implement fobs for their students to use on the bus so that parents can log onto an app and see where their children are.
“We have really tried to make sure we get leadership right,” Cummings explained. “Rene [Sanchez] has spent the last six months really working hard at transportation and trying to figure out where the issues are. We know we have issues that we continue to need to fix, but we are monitoring data second-by-second in the dashboards and we are starting to progress.”