As schools and businesses gear up for closures, school districts in Utah are looking for ways to keep learning going outside the classroom.
It’s a particular challenge for districts in rural areas, which can be geographically spread out and don’t always have reliable internet access.
But some districts are finding new ways to keep students connected: outfitting school buses with internet connections and parking them in strategic locations.
“We know we’re in great shape as far as devices,” said David Styler, superintendent of the Millard County School District. “But we also know that a number of our people don't have internet in their homes.”
Styler said about 14% of homes in his district don’t have internet access, but the district does have 12 buses already equipped with Wi-Fi. The idea came up several years ago, as students were traveling long distances — as much as four hours one way — to get to school or sporting events. Administrators back then wanted them to be able to access school materials while on the bus.
“That was the main intent, but in a situation like this we can turn that around to our advantage,” Styler said.
The plan now is to park 10 of the buses in rural communities around the district to allow students remote access.
Styler said the buses would park in a central location — from 8 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. — and students could pull up beside them and work on their assignments. Each bus could probably accommodate between 20 and 30 students, Styler said.
“I am very confident [our students will] be able to continue learning,” Styler said. “Whether it's the same quality that they could have in a classroom environment, probably not. But we can continue to move them forward.“
Additional buses would also deliver lunches to those communities.
For other districts, bus hotspots are something they’re still figuring out. In the Juab School District, superintendent Rick Robins said they would first need to survey parents to see how many students would need internet access. Based on those findings, the district would then contract with the local internet provider to outfit buses with Wi-Fi and figure out where to park them.
Robins said it’s a smart solution to help students who otherwise wouldn’t have access, especially for a district as widespread as Juab.
“Many of our bus drivers also reflect our population,” he said. “They live in Levan and Nephi and as far north as Mona and Rocky Ridge. So I think it would really work out well to outfit those buses with those access points.”
It’s an added hurdle to an already uncertain school year, but he said he’s not worried about getting it done. The bigger challenge, he said, is fighting the hysteria around the coronavirus.
“Our little people, they're watching us,” Robins said. “And so my greatest concern right now is to help our students understand that we will be OK and learning will continue. We’ll address their needs.“
In Emery, Carbon, Grand and San Juan Counties, Emery Telcom is providing free installation and internet access to families who live in their service area and have a student at home. The service will be free through the end of May.
A spokesperson for the company said they are working with school districts to get the word out, and that anyone interested can call them and speak to a representative to be added to the queue.
As of Monday afternoon, the company had received approximately 75 requests, according to the spokesperson. She added that they have the ability to increase internet speed if necessary, and that customers should not expect any interruption in their regular service.
A representative in Emery Telcom’s Moab office said that in San Juan County their service area does not reach south of Blanding, to Bluff or the Navajo Nation. The San Juan County school district is developing offline learning resources for their students today.
Grand County schools are able to provide a Chromebook to each student, said Acting Superintendent Taryn Kay, and won’t be sending out paper resources. She couldn’t confirm how many students will not be able to access the internet through Emery Telcom’s offer, but encouraged parents to take this time to bond with their children offline.
“Play, play with your child. Teach them how to cook. Teach them how to throw a ball,” Kay said. “Don’t just be screenheads.”
Jon Reed is a reporter for KUER. Follow him on Twitter @reedathonjon