School district bridges rural internet gap with school bus WiFi

News Photo by Julie Riddle Jasmine Turner, 10th grader at Alcona Community Schools, works on a story using WiFi on a bus after school on Tuesday.

LINCOLN — When Alcona County students climbed aboard school buses this fall, they tapped into newly installed wireless internet designed to make hours-long commutes more bearable.

The techy upgrade also equips kids to succeed in the classroom, said Donald Neuenfeldt, transportation director for Alcona Community Schools.

With 60% of the district’s students lacking reliable internet at home, the tech-ready buses provide more than just a chance to watch the latest video or message friends, Neuenfeldt said.

The new internet access turns buses into a learning space where kids can get caught up on faltering grades or surge ahead of their classmates.

Upper-grade students with limited internet access outside school earn lower grades and standardized test scores and are less likely to attend college, according to a study of rural Michigan schools by Michigan State University researchers.

In rural school districts — where bus drivers pick up an average of eight students per square mile, compared with 37 per square mile in nonrural areas, according to the report — long rides on wired-for-internet buses provide a service many homes can’t, Neuenfeldt said.

“When they leave the bus, they don’t have internet,” he said. “They don’t have anything.”

Alcona 10th grader Jasmine Turner uses her hour and a quarter ride home to do some writing or listen to music over the internet.

“It’s really good,” she grinned, offering a glimpse of a story she’s writing just for fun.

Boarding the bus at 6:50 a.m. each day, she uses some bus rides to sleep, but the bus’s internet access helps her and other kids not waste all that passenger time, Turner said.

Some Alcona County kids ride the bus for two hours each way, said Dan O’Connor, superintendent of Alcona Community Schools.

That long distance between home and school thwarts some parents who wish they could let their kids participate in sports or school social events.

Conscious of those distant parents, the district chooses sports and clubs with transportation challenges in mind, O’Connor said.

An on-campus medical clinic and mental health workers keep those services close so parents can get help for their kids without having to cross transportation hurdles, he said.

Careful planning can’t shorten hefty rural bus rides, however — and, since students have to put in that time to get to and from school, they might as well use it productively, O’Connor said.

A federal emergency connectivity fund grant covered the cost of the WiFi, which the district connected to software designed to keep students safe on the internet while on buses.

If schools ever have to go virtual again, wired buses could serve as mobile WiFi stations, traveling to central locations where families could gather to connect their electronic devices, O’Connor said.

Students can also tap into bus WiFi on the way to athletic events, some hours away, he said.

Some students use the internet access to do school work. Others use it for chatting with friends or relaxing.

Even when students aren’t using the WiFi to enhance their studies, drivers report fewer discipline problems with WiFi onboard, O’Connor said.

“You put 60 kids on a bus with not much else to do, that can lead to bad decisions,” he said.

A calmer ride offers an important plus as the district, like other regions, reports a shortage of bus drivers and needs to convince people to consider stepping up as substitute drivers.

Students shouldn’t spend all day facing screens, and teachers deliberately plan in-class lessons that make sure students connect with the real world, O’Connor said.

Still, educational doors open farther when students can connect to the wealth of online tools available to teachers, and wired buses make that a little more possible, he said.

The school district, like many others in the area, provides portable computers every student can take with them on their long commutes to and from school.

Such tech is great, but, “They’re no good if the student has no internet,” O’Connor said.

Julie Riddle can be reached at 989-358-5693, jriddle@thealpenanews.com or on Twitter @jriddleX.


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