Buses Becoming Mobile Classrooms
By Kim Underwood
Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools
AUGUST 21, 2020 – Beginning Monday Aug. 24, school buses that can provide students with the WiFi they need for school will be set up in housing communities in Winston-Salem.
It’s a new aspect to the Transportation Department’s mission, said Cris Cox, the Executive Director of Transportation for the school system.
In the days when students are going to school buildings each morning, he said, “Our job is taking the kids safely to school.”
Once students began learning remotely, he said, the question became “How can Transportation be involved in bring the schools safely to students?”
And this is one way to do that.
The buses are being called Mobile Classrooms, and on both sides of the buses will be banners with the school system’s logo and the words “Mobile WiFi.”
On the first day, buses will be set up in parking lots in the four housing communities – Weatherwood Court, Skyline Village, Wynfield Court Apartments, and Yarborough Avenue. WiFi connectivity will be available by 7:25 a.m. – in time for the first school bell in the system – and operate until the final bell at 3:40 p.m.
The buses have been equipped to provide WiFi access up to 100 yards on each side of the bus. So each bus will cover an area twice the size of a football field.
People in the Transportation Department will continue to equip more buses. At present, plans are for Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools to deploy a total of 20 buses with WiFi connectivity to areas identified as having a high number of students needing connectivity support.
Effie McMillian is the Executive Director of Equity for the school system.
“Shortly after the closure in March, the district began collecting data on the number of students who either did not or inconsistently engaged in remote learning,” McMillian said.
“Using this data, Homan Atashbar, the Director of Student Assignment, created maps that assisted the district with identifying the areas across the county with the highest percentage of students who did not engage fully.”
“There were various reasons why students in these areas were unable to engage fully. For some students, the reason was limited or no access to the internet or WiFi services. Without access to reliable connectivity, students in these areas found it challenging to login and submit assignments.”
“With school beginning this year with remote learning for the first nine weeks, implementing WiFi buses was one way the school district aimed to mitigate this barrier for students and to support access for students to teaching, learning, and connection to their school family. Therefore, we intentionally identified designated bus placement in communities throughout the county where Internet access is a need for students. We will continue to monitor and adjust as needed.”
Eventually, some students may be able to come onto the buses to work. At present, though, students will continue to work at home or wherever they are attending school during the day.
The bus driver will bring the bus to each location in the morning and stay with it for the day.
“We will not leave any buses unattended,” Cox said.
On Friday Aug. 21, Mobile Classroom drivers were participating in training sessions being held on a bus parked in a bus lot on Lansing Drive.
Vernita Oakes, who has been a bus driver for 22 years, and Tina Lawson, who has been a bus driver for 21, said they were delighted to participate in the program.
“I am excited to help these kids,” Lawson said. “The kids need this.”
Cory McLeod in the school system’s Technology Department took charge of designing the systems, Cox said. He included firewalls in the WiFi systems that keep students from, say, logging onto Netflix when they should be doing their school work.
At the bus garage on Carver School Road, mechanics Jared Rose and Austin Cates have been doing much of the installation work.
In addition to supporting students, Rose said, he has enjoyed the fringe benefit of learning something new.
Cates said he is glad to work on a project that serve students.
“That is what we are here for – to help them,” he said.
Cox said he has been impressed with how the people in Transportation and Technology and other departments have come together to help students.
“I think it’s phenomenal that we are going to be able to keep students engaged,” Cox said.