GLOUCESTER COUNTY, Va. (WAVY) — In March, as schools around the country shut down, an issue that has long impeded rural students threatened to become an insurmountable challenge: not all of them can get high-speed internet or a cell signal at home.
That’s true for about 750 students in Gloucester County Public Schools, officials estimate.
Some can’t afford what internet service providers charge to build out a connection, which can run into thousands or even tens of thousands of dollars in rural areas, while others can’t afford the monthly cost.
“One of the biggest issues we noticed right away [in March] was that students, especially in our more rural communities, kids weren’t turning in their work,” said Tanya Deckard, the district’s director of transportation services.
As an immediate but limited solution, Deckard’s bus drivers began delivering and picking up learning packets to students who couldn’t complete assignments online.
The district also opened up wireless access points, so students could sit in the parking lot, and in the fall, allowed them to come inside buildings on a limited basis to work.
Over the summer, Director of Information Technology Scott Mecca ordered 700 mobile WiFi hotspots that went out to students this fall.
But in Gloucester, foliage is so dense that not even hotspots could do in some areas.
That’s where WiFi on Wheels comes in.
It’s a school bus outfitted to act as a hotspot “on steroids,” as Mecca describes it, with a wireless router inside and antenna on the roof that helps the router better connect to cellular towers.
When the bus parks in a neighborhood where service is otherwise poor, residents get a 400 to 500 percent performance gain.
Deckard and Mecca worked together to build a schedule for the WiFi on Wheels program.
Deckard pinpointed neighborhoods where packet drop off and pick up had been heavily used, and Mecca drove to those areas to verify that cell service was poor.
Each bus takes about $5,000 to outfit, so Mecca started with just one, with a second in the works.
“We want to make sure the effort justifies the need that’s there,” he said. “We just want to make sure we’re looking at all the metrics, we’re making the right decisions and not just being knee jerk and buying a bunch of stuff, throwing it out there, and it’s not being used. “
As the program launches, Deckard says it’s just a technological twist on what her mission has always been.
“Transportation’s job has always been to give students equal access to education,” she said. “Instead of taking them to the building, we’re taking the building to them.”
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