As school districts around the country have begun the year with virtual learning, many have turned to yellow school buses to provide mobile internet hotspots for students and families without internet connections.
“We knew that we had to make some type of accommodations for the families in our district that do not have access to the internet,” said Rhonda Lyons, director of transportation at Wayne-Westland Community Schools in Michigan. “We have a very diverse community with many socio-economic challenges. All of the schools within our district qualify for free breakfast/lunch through our state’s programs. Once we knew that we would start the school year by distance learning, we also knew we would have to provide our students with Chromebooks. We also knew we would have to look at ways to provide them with internet access for them to get online for school.”
CBS Evening News with Norah O’Donnell featured the Wayne-Westland program on Sept. 24.
The district utilizes routers provided by Kajeet on 21 school buses. Lyons said the current bus routes are based on student population and location, especially those at apartment complexes and mobile home parks where Wi-Fi will serve the most children at one time.
Wi-Fi also keeps her staff working.
“All staff report daily because they are being paid their bid route hours that they would normally work if we were going to school,” she added. “They are scheduled in five-hour blocks, even if they get paid for eight hours.”
Security is vital to any school bus Wi-Fi program. Lyons said her district’s IT department handles all networking issues.
Meanwhile, Kim Picetti, transportation coordinator at Pyramid Lake Schools in Nixon, Nevada said her district currently has open-access Wi-Fi hotspots because the company it used did not follow internet security procedures so that the school could block inappropriate content from non-school web sites.
“Right now, school is doing distant learning and we will start bringing students back in a few weeks, so the students now have MiFi hot spots,” she added. “It has not affected the transportation budget—it has been in our budget for a while now, installations have not been a problem—it works well on the buses, and we have not encountered any issues.”
When school shut down in March and virtual learning took hold, Mount Vernon School District in Washington state was left scrambling to answer several questions, explained Transportation Supervisor Kelly Johnson. One of those questions was, how does the district provide equitable access under a new remote learning model?
“At that time, demand for individual mobile hotspots was extremely high and we were running into supply issues,” she explained. “That’s when we turned toward using buses as a mobile hotspot. This technology is not new, but it was the perfect opportunity for us to add technology to our fleet. We outfitted four buses with Wi-Fi units.”
The next obstacle for Mount Vernon was how to deploy them in the most effective way.
“We wanted to reach as many students as possible, yet there was a governor’s stay-at-home order in place, and we didn’t want to inadvertently cause a situation where people were gathering,” Johnson added. “So we used district and school data to determine where the highest concentrations of students in need were located, and we sent the buses to them. Most of our students live in high-density apartment complexes and low-income trailer parks. We had four buses going out in two shifts per day, so we covered eight high-need areas across our district.”
Since then, Johnson relayed, the district obtained the necessary hot spots on buses specifically used for field trips and other longer-distance routes to provide technology to each student. But it’s only the tip of the iceberg.
“We have long term plans for the Wi-Fi buses. … Our goal is to continue to provide equitable access to education when students return to buildings by providing a homework bus or allowing kids to have access to do their school work on long trips,” she noted.
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Tim Shannon, the transportation manager for Twin Rivers Unified School District near Sacramento, California, has overseen the distribution of 3,600 hotspots. “There are many types of buildings, from large apartment complexes with up to 100 kids to suburban houses and farms,” he said. “So there’s a wide range of coverage, from the inner city to rural areas. It’s more challenging at the outskirts of the district, but we want all kids to have a laptop or tablet and a reliable connection.”
With a range of 300 feet, Wi-Fi hotspots work well in all situations, he suggested.
Shannon said mobile Wi-Fi hotspots will be installed this fall on the district’s 50 large and 60 small buses, including 30 electric buses.
“Later in the year,” Shannon continued, “we’ll introduce interactive lessons. For example, on a museum field trip [students] can study a particular artist and exchange feedback with the teacher.”
Twin Rivers transported one-quarter of the 23,000 students who attend 52 campuses before COVID-19. That meant 5,000 students per day, plus about 4,300 field trips per year. Now, all students are at home attending virtual classes, and the mobile Wi-Fi program is in full gear.
All of the Twin Rivers mobile hotspot units are self-installed, with help from the district’s IT department. Shannon said he is proud to report that Chromebooks were distributed to every child in the district, in addition to the Wi-Fi mobile hotspots, thanks to funding provided by the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act and private foundations.
Shannon said that no bus drivers have complained about schedule changes, as the Wi-Fi technology has enabled the buses to remain in operation. “They just want to work,” he said, “so driving half-days and evenings is just fine. The last thing we want is to furlough any drivers — it’s very important to keep them.”
Editor’s Note: This article has been updated as it contained inaccurate information regarding the Twin Rivers Unified School District’s hotspots. STN regrets this error.