Creativity in crisis: WiFi buses narrow the digital divide

'We look at this implementation not just for COVID-109 but beyond that'

Turning school buses into mobile WiFi hotspots will provide broadband access and equity in narrowing the digital divide in online learning during the coronavirus crisis and when K-12 education begins to return to normal.

When Florida schools closed, leaders at the School District Of Manatee County knew about 20% to 30% of their students would need devices and access, and handed about 10,000 devices and about 400 mobile WiFi hotspots, Chief Technology Officer Scott Hansen says.

District leaders also worked with local internet providers to open up new hotspots across the county so families could take advantage of free and low-cost internet plans.

Then, to extend service to outlying areas, including far-flung communities of migrant workers, the district purchased high-powered routers and converted 25 school buses into mobile hotspots.

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“We look at this implementation not just for COVID-19 but beyond that,” Hansen says. “It’s an opportunity to provide students with access during the course of a bus ride, whether it’s sports, clubs or field trips.”

About 45 to 60 students have been showing up at each WiFi bus location, including about 25 in the migrant community.

“I don’t know that I can put a number on this for success,” Hansen says. “I certainly know that students who did not have internet capacity in their homes now have leverage.”

Need for WiFi equity is still growing

The district is now working to double its hotspot-bus fleet to 50 to provide WiFi access during summer school, which will be online, and in case the vehicles are needed should buildings close during the 2020-21 school year, Hansen says.

The district is getting plenty of support in narrowing the digital divide. Community members have donated $37,000 to help pay for the WiFi buses while neighbors have also been sharing WiFi with each other, Hansen says.

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Churches, community centers and other facilities have welcomed the buses into their parking lots, where families can pull in to upload and download assignments while still observing social distancing guidelines.

Principals and other educators have been sending out regular messages to let families know where the buses will be each day.

In locating the buses, educators are considering requests for service from the community. They are also choosing locations away from busy roads so students can get to them safely.

The district has also turned all of its elementary schools into hotspots by keeping routers open from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. Families can drive to the parking to use the service.

The district is now opening WiFi service in its secondary school parking lots.

“Families continue to request for intent access,” Hansen says. “It’s a moving target with unemployment numbers. A family may have had internet access four weeks ago but may not have it next week.”

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Matt Zalaznick
Matt Zalaznick
Matt Zalaznick is a life-long journalist. Prior to writing for District Administration he worked in daily news all over the country, from the NYC suburbs to the Rocky Mountains, Silicon Valley and the U.S. Virgin Islands. He's also in a band.

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