Even before COVID-19 resulted in a rapid shift to distance learning, technology company Kajeet provided services to families lacking internet access. A free webinar provided insight on how to best roll out school bus Wi-Fi hotspots to support student education.
The company is active in 1,600 school districts and has school bus technology deployed in 375 fleets across the U.S. and Canada. Michael Flood, Kajeet’s vice president of strategy, stated that COVID-19 has brought on a rapid adjustment to distance learning, which has also come with challenges, such as how teachers connect with students and how school administration ensures digital equity.
Fortunately, Wi-Fi-equipped school buses are here to help.
Partner in Our Arsenal
Beekmantown Central School District is a district of over 2,100 students in New York state. Five years ago, it transitioned to a one-to-one model of assigning an electronic device to each student. Gary Lambert, the director of 21st-century learning for Beekmantown, shared that the district wanted to address digital equality issues and realized the school bus is an extension of the classroom.
Through a grant, the district augmented student time in the classroom by equipping all of its 42 buses with Wi-Fi routers provided by Kajeet. As the rollout transpired over a couple of years, staff was able to compare data and see a positive change in attendance, discipline and achievement when students rode buses with Wi-Fi hotspots.
When COVID-19 brought about a change in teaching and learning, Lambert said, “Kajeet was a partner in our arsenal for that.”
And there is an active interest in staying connected, demonstrated by an increase in hotspot requests. Teachers are moderating video chats and providing “high-quality” online lessons, which would not be possible without the partnership with Kajeet, Lambert confirmed.
The district is also thankful for the smooth transition that Kajeet has enabled because it can now focus on providing service to families rather than worrying about the technical aspects.
Related: School Bus Wi-Fi Hotspots Aide Student Learning During COVID-19 Closures
Related: School Bus Wi-Fi Among Transportation Upgrades Implemented by Indiana School District
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
All Means All
Austin Independent School District in Texas recently added Wi-Fi routers to its school buses through a technology grant, with the aim of improving student behavior.
That project was completed just in time for a new mission. The buses now park outside apartment complexes to facilitate student access to the new online learning model. Community and district response has been nothing but positive, according to Kris Hafezizadeh, the district’s executive director of transportation & vehicle services.
On a normal day, the district transports almost 23,000 students. But now, its mission has been expanded. Through the “All Means All” model, the goal is to support educational service that reaches all 80,000 students in the district.
Austin ISD uses its school buses to deliver Chromebooks and food as well as to serve as Wi-Fi hotspots. At larger apartment complexes, multiple buses are used to increase the range, which is generally reported to be 200 to 300 feet. The drivers remain with the school bus and also engage with students, who practice social distancing while working.
Students don’t get on the bus. They can park their vehicles alongside it, or walk up and sit down nearby.
“Every student counts, and we need to make sure they have the resources for their education and food,” Hafezizadeh said. “We all [work] together to make it happen for our kids.”
The Changing Face of Educational Access
In a crisis like COVID-19, buses are doing more than daily pickup and drop-off routes. Transportation staff deliver food, clean and deliver laptops, and facilitate social and emotional services.
“We’re doing things we’d never have thought of before, but we’re doing it in support of our kids,” Hafezizadeh said.
But the availability of widespread technological access in homes may be forever changed.
Flood posed the question of what the future of education and digital access will look like. He pointed out that it’s impossible to predict every student’s home situation, so having broadband access options is crucial, even outside of a crisis.
Lambert affirmed that having connectivity options has proven useful for students before COVID-19. He went on to add that, in the past, schools have used technology to augment instruction rather than rely solely on it for education. That has now changed. Using distance learning and associated technologies, both teacher and student skillsets have improved, and participation is high.
“Now that that genie is out of the bottle, there’s no putting it back in,” Lambert declared.
He added that conversations about the future of education must be started now. A possible second wave of COVID-19 in the fall means that the current digital learning solutions are not a one-and-done deal, he said.
Hafezizadeh theorized that just as safety equipment like seatbelts and video cameras are widely used as preventive measures on a school bus, Wi-Fi could become a highly desired feature that plays a pivotal role in emergencies or disasters.
Related: STN Podcast Episode 4 – Business as Unusual: COVID-19’s Permanent Impact on Student Transportation
Related: Coronavirus Stimulus Stipulates Continued Payment to Student Transporters, School Bus Contractors
Related: Coronavirus Pandemic Alters Missions, Routines for Student Transportation Professionals
Related: $3B in School Relief Block Grants to States Address COVID-19 Impacts
Related: Update: School District Employees Provide Community Connections During COVID-19 Closures
Related: Why Are Some Districts Not Paying School-Bus Contractors During Coronavirus Closures?
Related: Update: NASDPTS Publishes FAQs Addressing Coronavirus Impact on Student Transportation
Kajeet Solutions Engineer Matt Riegel addressed many common questions about the technical aspects of school bus Wi-Fi hotspots.
Wi-Fi range is 150 feet indoors and up to 300 feet outdoors. Bus placement is an aspect that Austin ISD had to experiment with. With Hafezizadeh’s 30-plus years in the district, he and his team choose and periodically re-evaluate the district placements, while considering community requests and available resources.
Kajeet offers kits that can be installed on a particular bus or portable kits that can be moved between vehicles. Its solutions work with all the major U.S. carriers: Verizon, AT&T and T-Mobile/Sprint. A cellular connection is required for the Wi-Fi hotspots to work.
Streaming, gaming and non-educational sites are blocked through Kajeet’s cloud-based Sentinel portal to maximize bandwidth for student work. Security levels can be customized for different grades and for teachers.
Wi-Fi is on as long as the bus is on. In some districts, drivers are employed to sit with the bus, while other districts leave the bus parked and send maintenance teams around to turn the bus over so it doesn’t run out of battery. Another option is rooftop solar panels.
Kajeet SmartBus solutions are based on 60 to 65 students riding the bus and using the Wi-Fi at one time. Riegel said that capacity hasn’t been an issue since students typically use the Wi-Fi a few hours per day. Each district should also look at the data to gauge the usage and success of each mobile hotspot deployment.
Kajeet provides the cellular data connection, the hardware and the management platform. Funding for its Wi-Fi solutions can be obtained through grant programs, Title 1 funds, or CARES Act funds. Flood explained that the federal funding program ERate is currently limited to broadband access in schools and libraries, but the conversation should begin to include buses as learning environments.