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Virginia School System Turns Buses into Wi-Fi Hot Spots

Hopewell City Public Schools officials signed a 12-month contract to equip buses with Wi-Fi. The program’s aim is to close the "equity gap" of access among the student population that makes education during the pandemic difficult.

(TNS) — If you see a bright, yellow school bus rolling down the streets of Hopewell in the coming weeks, do not be alarmed.

The buses will not be delivering children to schools in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic. Instead, they will be delivering school to children, via quality Internet service.

Hopewell City Public Schools has signed a 12-month contract with Kajeet, a company based in Northern Virginia, to install wireless routers into 31 school buses with the goal of giving Internet access to homes and students that currently cannot log on. The buses will cast a wireless signal to homes within roughly a 300-foot radius.

With the new access, students without quality Internet access at home will be able to continue "distance learning" school instruction despite school closures, at no cost to them.

The program is being led by Kris Reed, the supervisor of information technology at Hopewell City Public Schools. He says the project's aim is to close the "equity gap" of access among Hopewell's student population, that makes education during the pandemic difficult.

"Equity, right now, is a huge thing. Not all kids have the same opportunities at home as other kids do," Reed said.

The routers utilize mobile networks from cellular towers, much like a smartphone. In Hopewell, they will be "piggy-backing" on Verizon wireless service.

The cost of the entire project will be around $29,000, according to Reed. However, he says that HCPS has applied for several grants related to the project, and while he does not know the exact status of the grants, he said, "it's very likely" that grant funding will completely cover the costs.

Kajeet is expected to deliver units to Hopewell by Monday, and the installation process will follow immediately. Reed said that "in a perfect world," buses would be ready to deliver access to students within a week.

Neither the locations or schedules for the placement of buses have been determined, Reed said, though they will likely be placed in densely populated areas with the highest need. HCPS will share details on locations and schedules with parents when they become available.

"We can adapt as we're going, and change and adjust on the fly," Reed said. "Once the buses are outfitted with the routers, it's just a matter of moving the buses to where we need them to be."

While the need for "21st-century buses," as Reed called them, is most prescient now during the COVID-19 pandemic, HCPS is making this investment with an eye on the future as well. Once life returns to the "old normal," Reed foresees the school system using the buses to offer Internet access to students who have gathered in large numbers at sporting events, at a football game for example, or on long field trips, where coverage may have been spotty or simply non-existent before.

"While it's an incredible solution right now, that's going to help us to fill that gap and make learning online at home more equitable, it's also a good plan moving forward," he said.

The program is the next logical step in HCPS' effort to overcome the equity issues caused by the pandemic. Recently, HCPS issued 2,000 Chromebook computers to students who needed Internet-capable devices at home, about half of Hopewell's student population.

Since HCPS announced the program, it has been received with widespread support and enthusiasm. Reed said that parents have already expressed their excitement about the project, and social media posts announcing plans for the program have been circulated in high numbers, reaching nearly 10,000 people as of Friday.

"I didn't even realize what kind of stir I was going to cause," he said.

The access granted by the program will be specifically for school-related use only. Reed said that HCPS will have the ability through Kajeet's products to monitor how the access is being used, and will be able to control who is using it and for what purpose.

In other words, Reed said, students will only be able to use their new access for school work, not to stream Netflix.

"We can allow the kids what they need access to, while also limiting things that are going to be wasting data and wasting bandwidth through the routers," Reed said.

The controls HCPS has over the access will also be compliant with the Children Internet Protection Act, meaning that sites that are unsafe for children will be blocked.

"We want kids to learn and we want them to be able to access resources just like they would in school, but one of the biggest, important things is, we want them to be safe at home while they're doing it," Reed said.

The out-of-the-box thinking behind the program is all part of the culture of HCPS, Reed said.

"One of the things that we push in Hopewell is being innovative," he said. "How can we be next-level and get the students what they need outside of what people are doing traditionally? This fits that mold."

©2020 The Progress-Index, Petersburg, Va. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.