If you see school buses parked around your city and get confused because schools are closed, no worries. It's likely that those buses are pumping out wifi for students who otherwise struggle for internet access.
With schools shut down across the country, school districts have had to scramble to figure out how to provide online schooling quickly. That's no simple task, and the transition has been a rocky one for administrators, teachers, parents, and kids. For families without the technology that enables that transition, it's been even harder.
Since online learning is the only way students can stay connected to schools and teachers, internet is a vital service. But despite the ubiquity of internet providers, not all families can afford internet. Even in places where internet providers are offering free wifi to families who can't afford it, some still can't afford the hardware—modems, routers—that enable them to take advantage of it.
School districts across the nation are addressing part of this issue by transforming their now-empty school buses into mobile wifi hotspots to bring online access to students. School bus hotspots fill a gap for families that aren't able to get wifi in their homes, for whatever reason. And though the idea isn't new—some districts have been using wifi-enabled buses as hotspots for years—it is becoming widespread during the pandemic.
In Montgomery, Alabama, 11 wifi-enabled buses already have rolled out, six more will go out today, and more will come next week. Montgomery Mayor Steven Reed told WSFA News why the buses are important.
"Because we understand there's a digital divide," he said. "And the coronavirus pandemic that we're into right now has only heightened the chasm that exists between those who can access high-speed internet service and those who can't."
"The idea is that any parent, any child in any neighborhood where they see that yellow school bus, they can access the WiFi hotspot," said MPS Superintendent Dr. Ann Roy Moore. "They don't have to be right down the street from their home. If they're at home, it's fine, but if they're at their grandma's house and there's a bus down the road, they can also access from that location."
The largest school district in Austin, Texas has deployed more than 100 wifi buses around the city through a $600,000 grant from Kajeet, an education technology provider.
"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," Kevin Schwartz, chief technology officer for Austin ISD, said in a news release.
"Austin ISD will be deploying many of our 500+ Kajeet Wi-Fi/Internet enabled school buses to locations around our school district so that students can connect using our district Chromebooks."
The buses do have some limitations, however. The buses in Austin broadcast about 300 feet, so some students may have to go outside of their homes to catch a signal. They are not allowed to board the bus, so inclement weather can make accessing the wifi tricky for some, but it's definitely better than nothing.
One thing the COVID-19 pandemic has succeeded in doing is shining a spotlight on existing inequities in our country. School districts in low-income areas that already struggle with funding suddenly have to figure out how to provide computers and internet to students, while many wealthier districts already had laptops or tablets for every student. Thankfully, donors and organizations are stepping up to assist, but addressing the economic inequality underlying the problem will need longer-lasting institutional solutions.
In the meantime, wifi buses are an innovative temporary stopgap for families who can't access the internet otherwise.
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