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School Buses Become Wi-Fi Hot Spots

For students with long commutes, Wi-Fi on a bus gives them an opportunity to do some homework.

Long bus rides to and from school have long been a reality for many rural students. And even in more populous areas, students’ commutes can extend to an hour or more each way. When considering even longer rides that many students take for athletic events and other school activities, the weekly hours some students spend in their big yellow taxis can be considerable.

Looking to capitalize on this transportation downtime, and to provide students with an opportunity to get a jump on their homework, some school districts have begun installing Wi-Fi hot spots on their buses.

My local Santa Fe, N.M., public school district (SFPS) is one of 16 districts in 12 states that received a grant from Google’s Rolling Study Halls program. The grant was awarded this spring and provided funds to install Wi-Fi on six Santa Fe buses serving middle school students with hour-long or more commutes.

In addition to Wi-Fi routers, Google and project partners the Consortium for School Networking and Kajeet, a wireless network provider, also provide devices and funding for ride-along tutors on each bus to help students with their homework.

Wi-Fi-equipped school buses are not new. In 2010, the Vail school district in rural southern Arizona began outfitting its buses with Wi-Fi to address the needs of its widespread attendance area. Other districts have started similar programs over the ensuing years.

Providing students with Internet access during their bus commutes serves a real need. But for low-socio economic communities, the lack of home Internet access still remains a serious issue for many students. It’s not uncommon in some districts to find students gathered around their school buildings after hours, using the schools’ Wi-Fi signal to get online.

The Coachella Valley Unified School District in California, one of the country’s poorest areas, came up with an inspired solution that accommodates its students’ bus commutes, as well as their home Internet access.

Several years ago, Coachella started outfitting its buses with Wi-Fi for students’ commutes. But seeing additional untapped potential in their mobile hot spots, the district then began parking the buses in trailer parks and other high-density areas in the evenings so students could use their district-provided devices to get online. And after discovering the Wi-Fi routers were running out of power mid-evening, the district cleverly installed solar panels on the buses to keep the routers charged.

But purchasing and maintaining Wi-Fi routers on buses is a cost that many districts can’t afford. Recognizing this funding predicament, a bipartisan bill was recently introduced by two U.S. senators from states with large rural areas that could benefit from Wi-Fi buses. In their bill, Tom Udall, D-New Mexico, and Cory Gardner, R-Colorado, proposed expanding the federal E-rate program to include outfitting school buses with Wi-Fi. If the bill passes, federal support should help even more districts climb on board.

Kipp Bentley is a senior fellow with the Center for Digital Education. He has been a teacher, a librarian, and a district-level educational technology director. He currently writes and consults from Santa Fe, New Mexico.