GLOUCESTER Co., Va. - What normally shuttles students to school is now helping signal their studies.
"As we all know, the COVID-19 pandemic has caused us to rethink how we provide educational opportunities for all students," said Superintendent for Gloucester County Public Schools Dr. Walter Clemons.
In this case, that means turning transportation into technology. For the past month or so, Gloucester County Public Schools has been operating the WiFi on Wheels program. The district installed a 5G wireless router on a school bus, which travels from neighborhood to neighborhood where internet connection is the weakest.
"We scheduled 'stop areas' so the bus will go to an area, stop there for about two hours and then move to the next location," said Transportation Coordinator Mitchel Thompson.
The transportation department was already privy to areas that were underserved. When the pandemic first hit, they were providing rides to internet cafés for families who couldn't access the internet.
When the WiFi on Wheels is out in a neighborhood, Director of Information Technology Scott Mecca said it can reach homes nearly 400 yards away.
"We actually have external antennas about as big as we could get for this frequency of radio, and so these antennas have been placed by our antenna system that's on the top of the bus," he said.
You will know if the bus is nearby because "SmartBus" will appear as a WiFi option. Students are then able to log in with the school-issued password.
"This is filtered internet, so even though somebody could get the password and use it, they're going to be limited as to where they go because we do block a lot of things," Mecca said.
Superintendent Clemons said its estimated to cost about $5,000 to equip the bus, but in a county where nearly 30% of the population doesn't have internet access, this is a step in the right direction.
The school district is currently operating on a hybrid model, meaning students are physically in the classroom two days a week and learn virtually the other days. Families were given the option of whether or not they wanted their students to attend in-person classes.
Superintendent Clemons said about one third of parents still opted for a fully virtual education. Regardless of how students choose to learn, WiFi on Wheels helps keep the school year rolling.
"Our responsibility is to find avenues in which we need to serve our students," said Dr. Clemons.
Thompson added, "We're just here to support the community in any way possible."