As we reflect on COVID-19 and its impacts on the transportation community, two lessons emerge: first – the growing need for digital equity, and second – the dedication of the transportation community to supporting students regardless of the challenges.
While digital equity has been an issue for decades, the disparity has never been so pronounced. According to a report from Common Sense Media and Boston Consulting Group released in summer 2020, 15-16 million K-12 students are without adequate Internet access – a vast majority of which are members of racial and/or ethnic minorities. And as we become an increasingly digital society, this learning gap will meld into an opportunities and successes gap.
Kajeet launched the SmartBus™ school bus Wi-Fi solution in 2015 to help schools and districts extend the classroom and bridge the digital divide. We have seen adoption grow and develop over time, and as I write this, there are currently more than 1,000 bus fleets equipped with SmartBus™ Wi-Fi across the 2,500+ district partners we serve.
Considering the 30 percent of K-12 students in the U.S. who do not have Internet at home, we see novel solutions like SmartBus as a vital opportunity for underprivileged or disconnected students to access their online assignments while in transit. As well, the total time students spend riding the bus averages out to 20 instructional days per student per school year – time that could be spent learning. Adoption of the solution continued to grow.
Fast forward to 2020: the COVID-19 pandemic hit, sending shockwaves throughout our educational system and the transportation world. How were buses to be used – if at all? Were there any ways transportation directors could support their students while in lockdown?
An unexpected hero emerged – Wi-Fi-equipped school buses, utilized as community Wi-Fi hotspots. We watched as district leaders across the country repurposed their W-Fi solutions. Within a matter of days or weeks, buses were mobilized and parked in strategic locations throughout district communities. Community center parking lots, apartment complexes, and neighborhoods became Wi-Fi hubs, allowing students to access much-needed Wi-Fi. Parents were communicated the times and locations in which this free, filtered Wi-Fi access would be available, and they brought their K-12 students to connect to the Internet on their devices and complete their distance learning schoolwork.
With a signal range of 300 feet, SmartBus allows for a sizeable group of students to connect at one time while maintaining social distancing requirements. Our K-12 district partners like Austin ISD, Beekmantown ISD, Sherman ISD, and many more led the way in repurposing this technology, inspiring other districts to see their school buses for the digital equity tools they are proven to be.
School buses may have been a timely innovation during COVID-19, but students sitting outside in parking lots to access Wi-Fi is not a long-term solution. Students must be able to connect to the learning opportunities they need, both during health emergencies and inclement weather days as well as on a consistent basis. We must work to make access to online tools ubiquitous, and to advocate for policies that encourage the expansion of wireless services.
Despite the challenges, however, the commitment of the transportation community inspired us all throughout the pandemic. We witnessed transportation directors leading their staff with creativity and an eye for student well-being during an intensely stressful and unprecedented time. We saw transportation staff reach out to parents in new ways to make sure they were connected, supported, and plugged into their students’ learning opportunities. We saw school bus drivers step up to help staff bus Wi-Fi hotspot zones – helping students connect, enforcing social distancing, and aiding in any emergency.
While we certainly hope we will not have to weather another storm like the COVID-19 pandemic anytime soon, we can count on these dedicated individuals to continue to find innovative ways to support the students who need it most. And let us all take a page out of their book and work for digital equity in the communities in which we live – whether in small ways or large, every effort makes a difference for the students we serve.
Michael Flood is the general manager of education for Kajeet. Visit www.kajeet.net for more information.