Central Vermont schools add Wi-Fi to buses — a model for the nation, says FCC chair
This story, by Report for America corps member Carly Berlin, was produced through a partnership between VTDigger and Vermont Public.
With the aid of federal funds, the Central Vermont Supervisory Union is busy giving its school buses an upgrade: equipping them with Wi-Fi, so students can turn long, idle drives into time to do homework.
Federal Communications Commission Chair Jessica Rosenworcel, along with U.S. Sen. Peter Welch, D-Vt., toured one soon-to-be minted Wi-Fi school bus at the Williamstown Middle and High School on Tuesday.
Meeting with a group of staff and students, Rosenworcel and Welch touted the supervisory union’s initiative to build out Wi-Fi capabilities on buses as a model for others nationwide — and one of particular urgency for rural areas where connectivity is sparse. Both hope to soon create a path for more schools to follow CVSU’s lead.
“We understand that there are students who don’t have internet access at home — and a lot of those kids are in rural America,” Rosenworcel said. “And in rural America, kids spend an awful lot of time on school buses. So we can turn that ride time into connected time for homework.”
Central Vermont Supervisory Union used funds from the FCC’s Emergency Connectivity Fund — a COVID-19 era program intended to provide schools with tools to shift to remote learning — to jumpstart its Wi-Fi on school buses effort, said Trey Cates, technology director for the supervisory union. Supply chain issues have delayed the implementation, but Cates said the supervisory union hopes to have the Wi-Fi routers installed by the end of the month.
That pandemic-era program will sunset in June 2024. But Rosenworcel hopes to open up a new route for more schools to equip buses with Wi-Fi. The FCC’s E-Rate program currently funds connectivity services for schools and libraries — but doesn’t consider Wi-Fi on buses an “educational purpose” for students, barring it from funding.
Rosenworcel hopes to expand the E-Rate program’s reach to buses. The FCC will consider the matter at a meeting next week.
Welch supports the change, too. “It's going to make it affordable for communities that want to enable high-speed internet to be on the buses,” he said.
Students and staff at Williamstown said the Wi-Fi buildout on buses will particularly help students who struggle to access the internet at home.
A history teacher, who noticed students’ varying abilities to connect to the internet at home during the pandemic, said the Wi-Fi bus buildout could be “revolutionary.” A school librarian described an advisee who printed off web pages before leaving school so she could read them at home — who might now have extra time to finish homework on the bus. And a high school junior said the initiative could be especially important for peers who lost their homes — and their internet access — following this summer’s floods.
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