MOUNT VERNON — Although schools remain closed because of the COVID-19 pandemic, many districts still have buses out on the roads to make sure students have food and schoolwork.
In Mount Vernon, four of the district’s school buses are also making sure students have internet access.
“We’re trying to make sure that students are able to access a free and appropriate public education,” said Stephanie Thomas, the district’s director of assessment and data systems. “Through no fault of their own, they’re not able to be in a building to get that access.”
When Gov. Jay Inslee closed all public schools in mid-March, he tasked school districts with making sure they were providing breakfast and lunch to their students, and providing child care for health care employees and first responders.
That direction later morphed into continuing to provide “continuous learning” opportunities for students.
For districts throughout the state, that meant getting technology into the hands of as many students as possible so they could do their schoolwork.
While some families that didn’t previously have internet access have been able get internet free or at a reduced price through companies such as Comcast, not all have been able to, Thomas said.
In Mount Vernon, the school district initially attempted to solve that issue with portable internet hot spots, but has since been able to establish more permanent solutions, Thomas said, including equipping two apartment complexes within the district with internet access.
“We’re trying to bring internet to students, not students to internet,” she said. “Access to internet is becoming increasingly necessary to access information and engage in your education.”
The district is in the process of installing devices in two other complexes, she said.
For students who don’t live in those complexes, the district has taken an additional step: installing hot spots on four of its buses, which the district is strategically stationing to serve the most students.
“We’re trying to use all the resources in a way that is the best fit for each model,” Thomas said.
The district’s technology and transportation teams were instrumental in the installation of the hot spots in the buses, which was done completely by district personnel, she said.
For some students, when the buses first rolled into their neighborhoods last week, it brought drastic change, she said.
“We have some elementary-age students who saw their teacher’s face for the first time in two months,” Thomas said. “They were pretty happy.”
The buses the district has chosen to equip with the hot spots are larger buses, Thomas said. That was intentional.
“All of these resources will continue to have value beyond the school closure,” she said. “I anticipate using these resources into the future. How exactly we will use them is still to be seen.”
One idea, she said, is to use those buses as the ones students use for activities that require after-school travel so students can do their homework on the way.
Another possibility is to use them as mobile after-school centers, where children can sit in the bus, be supervised and receive help with their homework.
Throughout the country, school districts have had to get creative in finding ways to serve their students during the pandemic. While internet-enabled buses are not unique, the project to do so in the Mount Vernon School District was accelerated because of the pandemic, Thomas said.
“I think it’s something that a lot of places had talked about, but the circumstances spurred us forward a little bit,” she said. “The current circumstance definitely accelerated the use of technology everywhere, not just in schools.”