School bus Wi-Fi once again makes headlines as a conduit to help bridge the digital divide, as Federal Communications Commission Chair Jessica Rosenworcel announced a proposal to allow E-Rate funding for school bus Wi-Fi during a meeting of the National Coalition for Technology in Education and Training last month.
Also last month, the FCC announced that the third and final application for the Emergency Connectivity Fund (ECF) resulted in requests totaling $2.8 billion, almost double the amount available. While there is no data indicating if those requests were for transportation specifically, as the fund also benefits school buildings and libraries, the FCC noted that over 7,000 school districts applied.
Michael Flood, the senior vice president and general manager of education for wireless solutions company Kajeet, said students are indeed using the connection on school buses, noting that results differ based on district.
“In the past six years that we’ve been doing this, the students do a lot more homework on the way to school in the morning than they do on the way home from school in the afternoon,” he said. “We see that in the data.”
Flood provided two case studies, one of Beekmantown Central School District in upstate New York and another with Raytown School District in Missouri. In Beekmantown’s case, the district extends 110 square miles, leaving some students on board school buses for up to an hour per day, one way.
“Putting Wi-Fi on buses was a tangible way to solve a problem and provide opportunities for students that we hadn’t ever been able to before,” said Gary Lambert, the district’s director of 21st Century Learning. “It would also help us fulfill the mission of the [New York State Education Department] Extended Learning Time grant. If you’re looking for an easy way to capitalize on a student’s time, buses are the answer.”
Beekmantown started by installing Kajeet SmartBus Wi-Fi on five school buses with the longest runs. Behavior incidents have declined by almost 50 percent since it was installed.
“What happens on the bus has a large impact on the rest of a student’s school day,” Lambert said. “We tend to look at buses only as vehicles, but they are always an extension of the classroom and the school environment.”
This year, the district is planning on adding Wi-Fi hotspots to six more buses in its fleet, with a goal to eventually outfit the entire fleet.
Meanwhile, in April 2017, Raytown School District began a six-month, six-bus pilot with Kajeet SmartBus because the district operates a four-tier bus system, meaning one bus with Wi-Fi could potentially benefit almost 200 kids every day. The case study added that bus connectivity would also allow the district to take advantage of other technologies such as GPS for tracking buses and full integration with Raytown’s routing and security video systems.
“With access to Wi-Fi to and from school, students riding the pilot buses were able to do their homework, review materials for tests, explore topics of interest, and work on their creativity and collaboration skills during their morning and afternoon commutes,” the case study stated, adding that pilot buses selected include regular routes, special ed routes, long and short routes, and those with a range of disciplinary records to ensure a variety of buses were used for the program. “Some of the most popular educational sites accessed included PBS.org and coolmath.com. For students involved in activities or athletics requiring travel, SmartBus connectivity gave them the ability to work on their homework while on the road so they wouldn’t have to stay up late to complete their assignments after a long day out.”
One of the most “striking outcomes” was the decrease in disciplinary referrals, which dropped 45 percent since installing the Wi-Fi.
“I was not surprised to see that when kids are busy and have something to work on, they’ll stay out of trouble,” said Kevin Easley, the district’s director of transportation. “I was shocked at the anecdotal and data reports of how much better it was, though. I wasn’t expecting those kinds of numbers.”
The district reportedly had positive comments from both parents and students on the bus connectivity, although it is still in the process of rolling out SmartBus fleetwide. Easley added that Raytown’s heaviest usage of bus Wi-Fi is by middle school kids during their morning commute.
“My vision is once you get Wi-Fi on the bus, you’ve taken out the limitations on most things,” he said.
However, Cindy Hanson, who retires as transportation director for Chief Leschi Schools in Washington state this month, said her operation only had Wi-Fi-equipped school buses for six months before realizing that the system wasn’t working. The Puyallup Tribe, which the school serves, bought all 600 students surface computers and wanted Wi-Fi connection on the buses as well. However, in the past six months since the Wi-Fi hotspots were installed, Hanson said there was only about a 10 to 15 percent use rate among students.
Hanson said the district runs 14 routes that travel into three different counties to pick up children, leaving some students on board the bus for upwards of two hours, which was the main reason for installing the technology. However, after running the reports, the lack of usage caused the district to remove all Wi-Fi hotspots at the start of this year and instead provided personal hotspots to families that didn’t already have good coverage at home.
She also attributed the lack of usage to the way the hardware was wired and installed. For example, the school bus drivers had to plug the Wi-Fi devices in every day.
“It’s not even totally clear if the drivers were even turning it on,” she said, adding that forgetting to turn the routers off at the end of the day drained the bus batteries, so some drivers just didn’t even turn the systems on at all. “… It was not really user-friendly.”
Hanson noted that overall, she thinks having Wi-Fi on board school buses is a good thing to offer students but noted that relying on the school bus drivers to plug it in and unplug it was not working.
Lea Bogle, the president and CEO of provider Premier Wireless, explained that when children know the Wi-Fi is there and school bus drivers remind the students they can access it, including the use of signage on the bus, hotspots are used more frequently.
“There are things that we can do to change the culture,” she said, adding that it’s also important to ensure that the Wi-Fi signal is strong in every area of the bus, and not just the front of the bus.
Editor’s Note: Read more on school bus Wi-Fi in the June Issue of School Transportation News.