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How parking a wireless school bus can help all students get back to school

How parking a wireless school bus can help all students get back to school
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Forty-seven states and the District of Columbia have decided to close schools in response to the coronavirus pandemic, affecting nearly 55 million students. Combined with district closures in other states, at least 124,000 U.S. public and private schools are closed, or scheduled to close, to contain the spread of the novel coronavirus. Yet, as schools scramble to replace face-to-face instruction with online learning tools, administrators and teachers are experiencing one major problem — the lack of available broadband connectivity and access for all students.

The U.S. digital divide gained attention in the early 2000s when Larry Irving, former deputy administrator of the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, coined the term. Comparing the backgrounds of those who were online with those who were not, the revelation that the majority of those impacted were disproportionately people of color, low-income, foreign-born, and rural residents still holds true. Today, at least 20 million (and perhaps even more) Americans lack access to high-speed broadband. The largest digital gaps affect rural areas, where one-third of residents do not have a home broadband connection.

The story of how we got here is simple: Broadband access and use are highly correlated with income and geography, which have made it difficult for certain households to fully transition from an analog to digital experience.

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In the case of income, impoverished households are more likely to be smartphone- dependent, with 26 percent of adults in these households owning one without home broadband. Using a smartphone as the only gateway to the internet can be limiting for certain functions.

When it comes to having an actual home broadband connection, the number drops to 56 percent for families earning less than $30,000. It was reported that 35 percent of school-age children living in low-income households lacked broadband service in 2015, the most recent year for which data is available. I would speculate that the number has not changed since then, as some school districts are challenged in their substitution of in-school resources with online instruction, electronic libraries, streaming videos, and other online tutorials in an equitable manner.

Long before concerns around COVID-19, Federal Communications Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel raised awareness around the issue of the “homework gap” that impacts students without access to broadband at home or in their communities. As every U.S. student will most likely be staying at home temporarily or for the remainder of the school year, school leaders need immediate solutions for the return to classrooms, even if that means virtually.

One possible solution to accelerate broadband access is to park a Wi-Fi enabled school bus in communities where underserved students live. This wouldn’t be too far off from the improvisation that state and local governments are doing to stave off the spread of the virus with quick fixes like drive-through testing centers.

With approximately 480,000 school buses that normally take around 25 million students back and forth to school currently parked, how about deploying some of them as Wi-Fi hotspots in the places that need them the most?

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It’s already being done in some areas.

Before the coronavirus outbreak, school districts like rural Coachella Valley Unified School District equipped their buses with Wi-Fi for students to do homework while in transit. When not in use, these buses are parked in underserved neighborhoods to offer 24/7 online access. South Carolina is planning to deploy 3,000 buses connected to the internet through a contract with Charter Communications so that students can receive home instruction. Florence, South Carolina had already been sending 12 Wi-Fi enabled buses to community sites as part of a pilot program for the students who cannot access school content. Students in South Bend, Indiana, have access to 20 buses where Wi-Fi can be accessed 300 feet in any direction at different locations during normal business hours.

These locations, along with a few other school districts in Illinois, Colorado, and Oregon, realize that closing their local digital divides is at the crux of implementing online instruction. To make the program available nationally, Congress could help by immediately appropriating funds to state and local governments for outfitting these buses — with private and philanthropic partners filling the gaps.

Efforts like Wi-Fi enabled, parked school buses can be complemented by onsite lending programs of mobile hotspots and other internet-enabled hardware. New York Public Library has been making hotspots available for check out since 2014 with a supply of over 10,000 routers, supporting patrons that use library computers in lieu of home broadband access.

With school districts enabling mobile “grab and go” and dedicated sites for free and reduced-price lunches, hardware can also be provided by the school, the private sector or non-profit partners to eligible students. Schools could also direct families to the resources available as part of the Federal Communication Commission’s Keep Americans Connected Pledge, which has the support of private telecom companies to offer their customers discounted broadband service plans, unlimited data (i.e., no caps), extended Wi-Fi hotspots, and relief from late fees and service cutoffs.

If schools are not sure what households need, a quick assessment via phone or text can expedite these connections.

Various educational institutions have faced their own set of challenges amid concerns over COVID-19 and the importance of social distancing. But the process of quickly shifting from analog to digital learning has revealed some ugly truths about the state of U.S. digital access where online gaps in internet access mirror existing wealth and social inequalities.

Nicol Turner Lee is a fellow at Brookings' Center for Technology Innovation and author of the forthcoming book, Digitally Invisible: How the Internet is Creating the New Underclass (Brookings Press, 2021).