This is an archived article and the information in the article may be outdated. Please look at the time stamp on the story to see when it was last updated.

MATHEWS COUNTY, Va. (WAVY) — Long before the coronavirus pandemic closed schools and sent students on the virtual learning track, “Smart Buses” were rolling along in southeastern Virginia.

“It allowed kids to do their homework on the way to school, during field trips and sporting events,” said Michael Anthony, the technology director for Mathews County Public Schools.

Administrators in rural districts say limited access to high-speed internet affects learning, since some students live in dead zones, where they can’t pick up a cellular signal.

A WiFi router sits above the mirror in one of Mathews County's school buses (WAVY Photo)
A WiFi router sits above the mirror in one of Mathews County’s school buses (WAVY Photo)

That’s why they created the Smart Buses so students can access the school system’s network without leaving their homes.

When students began learning virtually in March, the buses didn’t sit idle. Instead, they were deployed in the community to serve students who can’t access the internet where they live.

“It’s essentially wireless on wheels,” Anthony said. “It’s a wireless access point with antennae to help get the best signal it can and provide a radius around the bus to give the students access to attend classes.”

Four of the smart buses go out every day. Each can serve about 40 students. That’s not all the affected students – but it does cover about 3/4 of them (KXAN Photo)
Four of the smart buses go out every day. Each can serve about 40 students. That’s not all the affected students – but it does cover about 3/4 of them (KXAN Photo)

Superintendent Nancy Welch says in a survey of families, 22% in the district said they didn’t have internet speeds fast enough for online learning.

“Some of our families have maybe one bar of satellite access, but that will not support synchronous online learning — meaning face time with a teacher virtually,” Welch said.

Just as they did in the spring, four of the Smart Buses go out every day. Each can serve about 40 students, covering about three-quarters of the need in the district.

‘I see them as a temporary solution’

Assessing the success of the program is difficult or even impossible, since Welch said the district has not measured a change in attendance or grades since the buses rolled out.

Additionally, the buses don’t cover the entire demand nor the entire scope of the issue, according to Welch.

“I see them as a temporary solution,” she said.

Judy Rowe, chair of the Mathews County Broadband Advisory Board, has been working for more than a year to find long-term solutions for these systemic problems.

Some of Mathews County Public Schools' buses are equipped with WiFI (WAVY Photo)
Some of Mathews County Public Schools’ buses are equipped with WiFi (WAVY Photo)

“It is totally an equity issue,” Rowe said. “One of our biggest issues is the cost of connection. That’s true in any rural area. Connection costs come in anywhere from $10,000 to $50,000 [for a single home].”

In a district where nearly 50% of students depend on free or reduced-price lunch, that’s far out of reach for most families.

“It’s discrimination of the worst level,” Rowe said. “If you don’t have access to the internet and to broadband, it affects students’ grades. It affects their learning. It affects everything. Those students are losing out.”

Rowe’s board is working to get federal and state grants and funds to expand wireless infrastructure, but Welch says there is only one infallible solution: federal regulation.

“You are not going to have an industry come into a very rural community that has a small population to put in a tower or fiber, because they’re not going to make their money back,” she said. “Until the federal government steps into make this mandatory, we’re struggling. And we’re not alone. This is something you see across the commonwealth and across our nation.”

Partnering with the national non-profit Solutions Journalism Network, Nexstar stations nationwide are telling unique stories about how the pandemic has exposed inequities for students and the solutions some groups have found to bridge that gap.