School Districts Deploy WiFi-Equipped Buses to Expand Broadband Access for Students

School buses sit parked in a lot as schools remain closed due to the coronavirus Monday, March 30, 2020, in Providence, R.I

School buses sit parked in a lot as schools remain closed due to the coronavirus Monday, March 30, 2020, in Providence, R.I Associated Press

 

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School districts across the country are sending buses with WiFi to neighborhoods with limited broadband access to help students connect for full-time distance learning.

Schools are closed, but yellow buses are up and running in some communities—bringing wireless internet to students who need it for distance learning during the coronavirus pandemic.

In western Pennsylvania, five Ellwood City Transit buses provide mobile WiFi to students at various locations throughout the Ellwood City Area School District. Buses in Monterey County, California park at different locations throughout the week, allowing parents and children to travel and access the internet safely from inside their own cars. In North Carolina, state officials partnered with AT&T, Duke Energy and Google to outfit 280 school buses with wireless internet, a move Gov. Roy Cooper said was necessary after schools closed for the remainder of the year.

“In many communities, school buses are already delivering meals to students and their families,” Cooper said in a statement. “Now, they’re delivering WiFi for online learning.”

A nationwide pivot to distance learning amid the coronavirus pandemic threw into stark relief existing inequities in broadband access, a known issue that has for years hampered many students’ ability to do research and complete assignments at home. An Associated Press review of census data found that 17% of U.S. students—or 3 million kids—do not have a computer at home and 18% don’t have access to the internet.

In normal times, students can get online at libraries or coffee shops, but with most public buildings closed, high-speed internet at home is a necessary component for online learning. When schools began closing, many districts surveyed families about their access and then attempted to bridge the gap by providing students with mobile hotspots and partnering with internet providers to offer free or discounted service. The buses are an additional tool to help students get online, said Kevin Schwartz, chief technology officer for the Austin Independent School District, which is sending more than 100 buses to neighborhoods with low levels of connectivity.

"As we prepare for the possibility of extended school closures, we know that an Internet connection is a lifeline and a learning link for our students," Schwartz said in statement.

The district began deploying the buses last month, “strategically positioning” them at different locations every weekday from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. The WiFi signal from each bus works up to 200 feet away, and students are advised to stay in their cars or inside their homes to maintain social distancing, but can move closer to the bus if necessary while still staying 6 feet apart. Only district-provided computers will work on the network.

In other places, including Monterey County, students from other districts can access the mobile WiFi to complete coursework. In North Carolina, Cooper said that adults were also free to tap into the internet “to connect to health-care providers, apply for unemployment, and access other critical information and services while exercising appropriate social distancing precautions.”

Kate Elizabeth Queram is a staff correspondent for Route Fifty and is based in Washington, D.C.

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