HomeSpecial ReportsSchool Bus Wi-Fi Hotspots Aide Student Learning During COVID-19 Closures

School Bus Wi-Fi Hotspots Aide Student Learning During COVID-19 Closures

School buses are delivering broadband internet access in areas with limited or no internet access, to help students complete their school assignments while at home during the novel coronavirus pandemic.

Even as the coronavirus has forced some states to close all in-building classroom learning until next school year, some students don’t have access to continuous internet, and the yellow school bus once again helps to solve those challenges.

For example, state schools chief Tony Thurmond told School Transportation News during a press conference last week that the California Department of Education is working with school districts and private companies to employ a strategy of creating school bus hotspots using Wi-Fi routers.

Related: COVID-19 Resources

Michael Flood, the senior vice president of strategy for Kajeet, said many districts nationwide are exploring how they can utilize school buses as a hotspot. He explained that four years ago, Kajeet launched a SmartBus solution, which focused on installing Wi-Fi routers in school buses. Kajeet is now the number one provider of that solution in North America.

“When this crisis hit, [four] weeks ago, we were both uniquely positioned to be able to solve the problem but also completely overwhelmed with demand in a very, very fast time period,” Flood said.

He noted that districts are currently parking these buses in one location, as opposed to the normal activity using the Wi-Fi routers on school bus that is driving students to a sporting event or even home-to-school routes. But the end result is the same—providing students with the means to get their homework done.

But because the buses are parked, Flood said additional factors should be considered, including the location chosen by the district.

“We recommend some sort of a parking lot, because we want the community to be able to pull up in their cars and stay in their cars for social distancing reasons, but still be able to access that network,” Flood explained.

Another factor to consider is location security.

“Is it a secure environment they are parking the bus at? Is it going to be supervised? Is there going to be a school employee there during the hours that it is operational?” asked Flood. “That’s for the security of the equipment and for the safety of the students. They need to think, is [the area] well lit if they are going to keep it running in the evening?”

A student at Austin ISD using the school bus hotspot for homework. Photo courtesy of Kris Hafezizadeh. 

For example, Austin Independent School District in Texas was already planning on equipping its fleet with 534 SmartBus Wi-Fi routers purchased with grant money. When the pandemic hit, Flood said the district fast-tracked the order, and now it can utilize the technology during the crisis.

Kris Hafezizadeh, the district’s executive director of transportation and vehicle services, told School Transportation News that the official roll-out date for the school bus hotspots is Wednesday. District employees finished installing the routers, a process that took about one to two hours per bus, he added.

The district began its distance learning program on Monday, and for the past two weeks Hafezizadeh said school buses have also delivering Chromebooks to students in need.

To start, 100 Austin ISD school buses will be distributed across seven locations throughout the city, where students can come and access the Wi-Fi. For instance, Hafezizadeh said 20 school buses will be staggered about 150 feet apart to serve students who live at a particular apartment complex.

“We want to put more buses in one apartment complex because we want to be mindful of not too many students around one bus, so that they can keep their social distancing in place,” Hafezizadeh explained.

He added that two employees, a school bus driver and a monitor, will remain at every bus to continuously ensure students maintain proper distance.

The buses will be parked Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m., local time.

Meanwhile, South Bend Community School Corporation in Indiana installed Wi-Fi routers on its buses last November to extend student learning during the regular school commute. The district is a one-to-one district that provides every student with a Chromebook. However, the district’s 22 buses now equipped with the Wi-Fi routers are providing an even greater service.

Related: School Bus Wi-Fi Among Transportation Upgrades Implemented by Indiana School District

Chief Operations Officer Rene Sanchez said the district wanted to ensure it could provide internet to as many students as possible, so it broke up Wi-Fi availability daily by bus stops, so that the buses could reach up to 40 locations a week.

The district also equipped two smaller buses with the Wi-Fi routers and is planning to park them in apartment complex parking lots. Most district buses, however, are being parked on the street due to space constraints.

As the program was being developed, Sanchez said the district made two considerations. First, the district determined the hours that each school requires for distance learning. He added that he wanted the buses parked during the same hours that eLearning is taking place, which is Monday through Thursday from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m.

The other consideration was where to park the buses.

“We looked at two different heat maps that we have. The first one that we looked at was where we have a lot of students [in] poverty … we identified parks, we identified apartment complexes, we identified other areas that students can congregate, based on where they live in those areas,” Sanchez explained.

The district also conducted a survey to determine which households have internet access and which do not.

“We went to those areas where students said we don’t have high quality or broadband. So that way, we not only went to impoverished areas, but we also went to areas where we knew there was limited Wi-Fi,” he added.

Related: School Bus Routing to Meet Todays Coronavirus Challenges
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Once districts decide on where to park their Wi-Fi enabled school buses, Flood advised that the next step is choosing how to power the bus. He said districts can choose to run an AC adapter and an extension cord to a nearby physical outlet at a building. Or, depending on weather conditions, they can use a solar panel that charges that battery while the router is in use.

Flood also suggested that districts can also combine Wi-Fi access with food delivery to students, when applicable.

“The buses will run their usual route, but instead of picking up kids, they are picking up food. But when they stop at those stops … if the bus has Wi-Fi available, then that also provides an opportunity for some of the communities that don’t have another broadband access to come up and use broadband for a short time period, while the bus is there,” Flood explained. “It is just another way to bring broadband out into the community.”

South Bend Community School Corporation is currently doing just that. Superintendent Todd Cummings said that the district already had a plan in place to serve students meals during school closures, which included holidays and spring break. With the help of community partners, the district is able to provide breakfast, lunch and dinner to students at the locations where the bus is also parked for Wi-Fi services.

“We knew that when we were going to park our buses initially, we knew that we were going to use our heat maps and look where our students were congregated in the most free-and-reduced lunch areas, students who lived in food deserts,” Cummings explained.

He said that because the buses are parked every other day in that location, students can come and get their two days’ worth of food and their Wi-Fi, all in at the same time.

“Then in transition, we had seven building sites open, but we transitioned those to buses, so that we have fewer people in buildings,” Cummings shared. “So now, the buses park in front of the schools and food is delivered from there. We have moved everything to three prep kitchens. We have nurses on staff taking people’s temperature. We have really worked hard to get our safety protocols right, minimize the buildings that are open, and make sure that we are keeping social distancing in our Wi-Fi and food delivery.”

Cummings added that the district is planning to continue to offer this service through the summer months as they see fit.

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