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S.C. to Send Wi-Fi Enabled School Buses Around State for Online Learning

By David Saleh Rauf

031820_TX_Bus_Wifi_47_Robinson-BLOG.jpg

South Carolina education officials on Monday were to start placing hundreds of school buses equipped with Wi-Fi in low-income neighborhoods around the state to serve as mobile hotspots for students.

The idea of delivering internet connectivity to students via buses is not new—the Austin Independent School District in Texas, for example, is putting Wi-Fi on hundeds of its buses to smooth the way for remote learning. But South Carolina is widening its focus statewide in seeking to use Wi-Fi-enabled buses during extended closures caused by the coronavirus.

As of Monday, school districts in South Carolina had submitted requests for 550 buses, said state Department of Education spokesman Ryan Brown, and somewhere around 300 were ready to be deployed.

"We're going to place the buses in high-poverty and rural areas," said Brown. "They'll be in areas where they can be accessed easily. Parents can drive up or students can ride their bikes and access the internet within a certain range."

Schools are closed in South Carolina through March 31, but Brown said he expects that to be reevaluated this week with an eye toward extending that date. The state education department started putting the buses into neighborhoods now so students "who don't have internet connectivity can download materials" ahead of classes restarting in some form, he said.

South Carolina has bought 3,000 school buses since 2015, all outfitted with GPS tracking, Wi-Fi hardware and air conditioning, said Brown. But only a few larger districts have activated internet service for the buses, so said school officials have been busy calling AT&T and Verizon to say "'Hey, we need the service now.'"

"The buses have modems," Brown said, "but we're having to hook the service up to them."

While all 3,000-district buses already equipped with modems are being mobilized for the project, Brown said he doesn't expect many more requests aside from the 550 already identified through a statewide survey that school districts filled out last week. (Side note: An estimated 1,300 buses are also being used for meal delivery.)

"We're filling requests as they come in," he said, noting that demand may top out around requests for 600 buses. "We're also seeing less of a need since providers like Comcast and Charter are offering free internet for 60 days, so I don't anticipate we'll have to deploy all 3,000 of those buses."

Photo: Alex Dubon, left, assists Austin Independent School District foreman Daniel Webb, right, with installing a WiFi hotspot in a school bus.. The Austin Independent School District is installing WiFi on all school buses to act as hotspots during extended school closures. Districts around the country are making similar efforts, and South Carolina has a state plan. -- Julia Robinson for Education Week

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