So far, 25 Manatee County school buses have been converted into mobile Wi-Fi hotspots.

Image: Jessika Ward

During a typical spring in a typical school year, Manatee County buses are busy ferrying students to and from their classes. But because of the COVID-19 pandemic, this hasn't been a typical spring, nor a typical school year, and those school buses have found a new purpose: providing internet access to students who don't have a high-speed connection at home. Over the past two months, the school district has converted 25 of its buses into Wi-Fi hotspots that park at community centers and churches.

"We determined that students needed a device. That was easy. We could give them a device," says Manatee County schools superintendent Cynthia Saunders. "The issue was the Wi-Fi."

Scott Hansen, the school district's chief technology officer, estimates that 25 percent of students in Manatee County "do not have reliable internet service or a reliable device" to complete virtual assignments. Since March, the district has distributed approximately 10,000 laptops and 400 internet hotspot devices to students.

The School District of Manatee County estimates that 25 percent of its students lack access to high-speed internet or a computer at home.

To reach more students who lack internet access, Hansen came up with the idea of outfitting buses with Wi-Fi and partnering with churches and other organizations that can provide what Saunders calls a "safe environment for the students that needed the Wi-Fi to come and learn." Between two and 15 kids are coming to each bus daily to access online study materials.

Saunders says she's grateful to bus drivers who have left their homes during the pandemic to help meet students' needs.

“The bus drivers also had to be willing to be a part of this partnership and they embraced it wholeheartedly," says Saunders. "We were able to feed students and continue the learning. This is not ideal, but it is a solution we had to come up with."

The school year ends next Thursday, May 28. Students enrolled in summer school will be taking classes online. Angela Hodges Lindsey, the principal of Dr. Mona Jain Middle School in Bradenton, says the school district plans to increase the number of Wi-Fi buses to 52 by the end of the summer.

As for the fall semester, the situation remains uncertain.

“We don’t know what the virus is going to do. We do not know what the fall looks like," says Saunders. "We will come up with a bunch of options and a bunch of solutions with the community giving us some feedback. So we are prepared with full-blown traditional, full-blown online or a hybrid option, just in case.”

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