School Buses Equipped with Wi-Fi Help to Bridge the Digital Divide

And Wi-Fi access isn’t just a way to get students online, it’s also created a ripple effect of many positive impacts, as measured by district officials.

by Julia McCandless / August 2, 2016

Bus rides are being launched into the 21st century as school districts across the U.S. work to implement Wi-Fi access for students as a way to make travel time more worthwhile.

The Internet is an invaluable tool for work, social interactions and learning. For many students, completing schoolwork and achieving academic success relies heavily on having access to the Internet. Research findings from Speak Up 2015 found that one in five students are unable to do their homework because they don’t have Internet access outside of school. As a way of addressing this issue, some school districts are offering Wi-Fi to students during bus rides to and from school.

However, it’s not a widespread trend yet. Only 5 percent of school district administrators currently report providing Wi-Fi on buses, but 24 percent say they want to.

Trailblazers that have already adopted on-bus Wi-Fi include Vail School District in Arizona, which began the service in 2009 as a way to engage high school students faced with long travel times. Since the district covers a large, geographically diverse area spread out across 425 square miles, students living in rural communities can spend up to two hours per day riding the school bus.

To connect students on the road, a wireless router is installed on the front of the bus with a USB stick modem. Students access a public network to make things simple and hassle-free for bus drivers.

The school bus Wi-Fi serves as one feature in a larger strategic design by Vail School District to engage student learning in the digital age. The district is “textbook free” and instead provides each high school student with a laptop to access assignments, teacher communication and educational resources. It also serves as a tool for students to connect with one another and the outside world.

While it may sound expensive, Matt Federoff, the district’s CIO, said that after all the costs are factored in, the price comes close to that of providing traditional textbooks. In fact, one way the district funds the Wi-Fi service is through local business advertisements featured on connected buses. “As a public entity, if we provide additional Internet access at a modest cost or no cost with the support of local businesses and provide connectivity to students who might not have it, there really is no reason not to do this,” he said.

Tips for a Successful Rollout

1 // Consider putting solar panels on top of the school bus so there’s plenty of power throughout the night for Wi-Fi users.
2 // Work with private landowners to determine
where school buses can be parked at night.

That’s especially true in rural, impoverished communities like the Coachella Valley Unified School District in Southern California. Reported as one of the poorest school districts in the nation, up to 40 percent of its students did not have Internet access at home in 2011 — a “red flag problem that needed a solution,” recalled Superintendent Darryl Adams.

The solution? The district implemented Wi-Fi access during school bus rides, but it also takes the initiative a step further by parking approximately eight buses in rural areas at night to serve as Wi-Fi hot spots so students and their families can access the Internet from home. The district has also started using salvaged vehicles as permanent hot spots in trailer parks and remote locations where Internet service would otherwise be unavailable.

The Coachella district currently provides Wi-Fi on 100 of its school buses that transport 20,000 students. And the connectivity is part of a bigger tech initiative: Each student receives an iPad to use from preschool until they graduate high school. Adams said the district used a bond initiative, which taxes community members to provide those high-tech resources to their students, garnering approximately $42 million over the course of 10 years. “Parents were willing to tax themselves because they know the value of this,” he said. “Our students have access to equity and knowledge. The buses allow them to be online on the way to school, athletic events or field trips.”

But Wi-Fi access isn’t just a way to get students online, it’s also created a ripple effect of many positive impacts, as measured by district officials. “The No. 1 benefit is there’s no discipline [problem] on the buses now because students are engaged,” said Adams. “Our attendance has gone up; graduation rates have gone up by about 10 points. More students are going to college than before, and parents are happy with the program.”

With such positive results, it’s no wonder that more school districts are considering similar programs. The Miami-Dade County, Fla., Public School District recently rolled out a “Wi-Fi-on-the-Go” pilot this year to test the viability of providing education-based Internet access to bus riders. With 967 bus routes covering 2,431 square miles, the district has one of the most expansive school bus systems in operation. Many of those routes run for 30 minutes or more, meaning students could potentially use that time for studying, reading or completing coursework.

As Assistant Superintendent of School Operations Steffond Cone noted, the 18-bus pilot will test the effects of school bus Wi-Fi access on academic performance. “It helps to maximize the time on a school bus, and we have students that don’t have Internet access at home,” Cone said. “Therefore, when they’re on the bus, they can utilize that time. We feel that’s very important as students are riding in to school.” The district plans to evaluate data from the pilot this summer to determine next steps and the possibility of expanding the program.

While Wi-Fi-equipped school buses may eventually become the status quo, today they may be most beneficial in technology-driven districts. “It makes sense to implement in a place where you are providing tools to students and providing content in a digital fashion,” said Federoff. “If you’re in a place where the kids have devices and you’re delivering content in a digital format, that’s the place to start.”

For the Coachella Valley Unified School District, it’s also a way to bridge the digital divide and support students in rural areas. “We’re providing a true progressive education system,” Adams said. “Our kids need to have many options. They have to be problem-solvers and entrepreneurs, and they need to have access to knowledge and information and to each other.”