By Richard G. Tackett
When the COVID-19 pandemic struck and shutdowns stalled in-person learning at schools around the nation, the Savannah-Chatham County Public School System (SCCPSS) acted quickly to ensure all its students had Wi-Fi access and the ability to learn remotely.
Teaming with partner Kajeet – a managed wireless connectivity provider – SCCPSS utilized its buses as a new equity tool for students in lower-income or more remote areas: rolling Wi-Fi zones.
Prior to the pandemic, SCCPSS launched a 1-to-1 program offering digital learning and 24/7 remote access to participating high school and middle school students. Tammy Kemp, manager of instructional technology and media services at SCCPSS, said that the 1-to-1 launch was in many ways a pilot program for the COVID-19 shutdowns.
“During the 1-to-1 launch, we began to learn that SCCPSS had internet solutions needs,” she said. “I was having conversations with parents who did not have access to Wi-Fi for a variety of reasons. Some had access to free hotspots, but we began to see there was a potential opportunity to help in that area.”
This thought process was kickstarted in March 2020 by the shutdowns. Without access to school facilities or technology, students with no Wi-Fi were going to have serious trouble keeping up with curriculum.
Deploying Smart Buses
Kemp said that SCCPSS met with numerous vendors before selecting the Kajeet SmartBus™ school bus Wi-Fi solution. The plan: school buses converted into community Wi-Fi hotspots.
“We needed a ready-to-go solution – we did not have the resources nor the time to develop our own separate connectivity system,” she said.
The district began by purchasing 70 Kajeet hotspots in April 2020. The plan for deployment was a cooperative process between the district’s technology, transportation, and communications departments.
Kajeet – already well-versed in data filtering, device management, and 1-to-1 deployments – launched the SmartBus solution in 2015 to help schools and districts extend the classroom and bridge the digital divide.
“The solution is all about digital equity,” said Gene Ballard, director of strategy for Kajeet. “Many children do not have internet access at home. It might be for socioeconomic reasons, or even personal choice.”
The SmartBus deployment for SCCPSS installed enterprise-grade, ruggedized Wi-Fi routers on each of SCCPSS’s buses. Each bus is outfitted with an antenna, and the data can run through any carrier the district chooses because of Kajeet’s network guarantee.
First, SCCPSS determined where the largest pockets of families without Wi-Fi access were located. Then members of each department rode through the community on buses to select deployment sites. Assessors had to be careful in finding spots for buses to safely park, free of interference from trees or low overhangs.
“Safety was our top priority in assessing Wi-Fi hotspot sites,” Kemp said. “We did not want our students needing to cross a highway, for example. We aimed for community centers, communities with HOAs who might give permission to enter their property, and other safe places.”
Scheduling of bus deployments was coordinated with the SCCPSS Department of Transportation, so that drivers might be matched with familiar routes and drop-off times. Finally, the district’s communication department rolled out a social and local media campaign to educate parents about the new program.
“A bus outfitted with Wi-Fi can impact 100 kids at a time,” Ballard said. “Then, when these kids go back to school, they are not so far behind the kids from more affluent neighborhoods.”
Rolling Out Wi-Fi Zones
Buses were driven by drivers, volunteers, and other staff members in the district. Some drivers were hesitant about troubleshooting the technology for students, but Kemp said that SCCPSS assured that a help desk would be available for any problems. The transportation department, meanwhile, worked to ensure that drivers were placed on their regular routes with familiar kids as much as possible.
The process required thorough data upkeep and system monitoring.
“We are constantly looking at our data and reassessing the program,” Kemp said. “We review the size of student groups with our bus drivers, in case we need to re-allocate our buses to areas with more need.”
Kemp also appreciated the insights offered by the Kajeet administrator management platform, Sentinel.
“I have to give Kajeet a lot of credit for data analysis capabilities,” she continued. “It is so easy for us to pull up the data on our personalized dashboard – from download and upload speeds to content filtering, to driver monitoring. We know our students are being safe while remote learning, and that makes our jobs much easier.”
Applications After Re-Opening
As in-person learning re-opened for SCCPSS and the Savannah community, Kemp said some buses were pulled back into regular routing while others remained as remote Wi-Fi zones. The SmartBus devices, however, remained on the buses re-entering normal routes.
“We started to advertise to the parents the fact that their kids could now do schoolwork while riding the bus,” she said. “Some students are on the bus for more than an hour each day, so allowing them to start or finish schoolwork while riding is a huge benefit.”
Ballard added that he thinks Wi-Fi will quickly become a nationwide standard on buses of all types, including school uses.
“As more and more of these deployments arise, parents and students will become accustomed to connectivity – much in the same way Wi-Fi became a standard benefit for air travel.”
The Path Forward
Community feedback to SCCPSS was universally favorable – a rare feat for any technology deployment in any area. Stakeholders and parents provided critical insight on decision-making and protocol procedures.
Kemp said that Kajeet was also a valuable partner, providing the much-needed support and troubleshooting for a project of this size and scope.
“If I had an issue, I always had support from a real person who was familiar with our system,” she said. “All of our questions were answered, and that is not always the case in vendor-district relationships. I am confident that we will continue to successfully manage the district’s SmartBus program thanks to that great relationship.”