Smart, Connected School Buses Provide Internet Access During Pandemic

School districts are transforming retired and unused school buses into large-scale mobile hot spots, providing free WiFi for students and community members in areas with high numbers of students without Internet connectivity.  

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Image credit: Kajeet SmartBus

Like so many school districts this fall, the Dallas Independent School District (DISD) is finding creative ways to teach the 155,000 students that usually sit in its 230 schools. Faced with the pandemic-related shutdown in March and unclear about its fall plans, the DISD is preparing for remote learning, at least in some form.

The district has provided 80,000 student computers and 10,000 mobile hotspots for remote learning to cover the 30 percent of students who didn’t have Internet connectivity. Now, 95 percent of students are connected to teachers for home learning. 

The technology outreach is part of a program called Operation Connectivity, which DISD created in conjunction with the Dallas Innovation Alliance (DIA) to address the non-connectivity problems in Dallas. The goal of Operation Connectivity is to provide Internet access and device solutions to Dallas neighborhoods with the highest percentage of non-connectivity. Dallas is ranked number one in Texas--and number six in the country--of urban cities with families without fixed Internet. Due to COVID-19 and the widespread switch to online learning operations in the school districts, the Internet has become a necessity, DISD Superintendent Michael Hinojosa has said. 

Mobile Hotspots

As part of Operation Connectivity, the DISD and DIA are launching mobile learning labs, which provide WiFi and educational and life skills services to Dallas neighborhoods, in hopes of addressing this problem. The mobile learning labs are retired school buses that have been converted into large-scale hotspots, providing up to a 300 ft. radius of free WiFi for members of the community. Starting in July, 10 buses have been stationed at apartment complexes and parks across the city every weekday from about 9 a.m. to 3 p.m.

white school bus with fly bus fly branding

Image credit: Dallas Innovation Alliance

The buses act as mobile hotspots, tech support, and enrollment centers. When COVID-19 restrictions are loosened, the mobile learning labs can be transformed into classrooms, or mobile study halls, allowing students to do homework in the gap between afternoon and evening. The buses can provide on-board tutoring and experiential learning opportunities, but can also offer financial and digital literacy, job application development, and other services for people of all ages. They have also partnered with community organizations to provide additional programs for community members. 

The Emergence of the SmartBus

The use of buses as mobile hotspots is gaining ground. Kajeet, a McLean, VA.-based wireless provider that specializes in offering services to schools and students, is tackling non-connectivity issues across the country with its SmartBus™ solution. The bundle includes WiFi, GPS, and camera offload capabilities and can be installed on a district’s existing school buses. The SmartBus solution gives students educationally filtered Internet access while on the bus, while drivers can monitor student behavior and ensure safety. Parents and school administrators can also track the bus location in real time. 

During pandemic-induced remote learning scenarios, the SmartBus is being deployed as Internet hot-spots only, rather than using them for transportation. Students can connect to the WiFi using school-issued computers. Since the WiFi signal can reach up to 300 feet, some students and families can drive up for access, while others are able to connect from inside their homes. 

The Kajeet WiFi SmartBus router is compatible with the five major U.S. wireless networks and can connect up to 65 devices simultaneously. However, since 65 students cannot be crowded on or around a bus due to social distancing guidelines, Kajeet recommends that school districts set up marked areas around the bus, to ensure students and staff are staying at least six feet apart.

In addition to the GPS bus tracking capabilities, the system features a cellular router and antenna, supports customizable user filters, and operates on multiple 4G LTE networks. Districts can manage devices, usage, and data reporting via Kajeet’s cloud-based Sentinel management system. 

The Austin Independent School District in Texas has deployed 110 Kajeet SmartBuses in neighborhoods and apartment complexes with the lowest rates of Internet access. The buses were funded by a $600,000 grant from Kajeet, which will continue to provide Austin ISD with WiFi-equipped buses that can be used for field trips, activities, and transportation when COVID-19 restrictions ease up. 

With many schools going virtual for the 2020 school year, school districts are finding creative ways to ensure students don’t falter educationally. Repurposing buses to provide reliable Internet to the most vulnerable students is a critical first step in that direction.