Internet access coming to Kanawha County school buses

By Ryan Quinn, Education Reporter

Kanawha County Schools will begin installing routers this week on all 158 county school buses to provide wireless Internet access to students, to whom the school system has already given tablet computers.

Leah Sparks, technology director of the school system, said the Verizon routers will cost roughly $150,000, and the monthly service charge per bus will be about $40, totaling about $63,200 to provide service for all buses for 10 months each school year.

She said she hopes all the routers can be installed by the start of the spring semester; Brette Fraley, head of transportation for the school system, said they could be installed within about 30 days.

Kanawha distributed more than 14,000 iPad tablet computers to every middle and high school student in the county last school year through the roughly $14 million Learning 20/20 initiative. Students use them to complete homework and access electronic textbooks and other educational software.

Sparks said she expects the Wi-Fi Internet access to help students get work done on the buses, while simultaneously lessening their distraction of bus drivers. She said it could particularly help students on long bus routes and those involved in sports.

“Instead of waiting until 11 o’clock at night to get home and do their homework,” Sparks said, “they could be doing it on the way to the game or from the game.”

Fraley said a pilot test in March — during which two buses at each of the county’s five bus terminals were outfitted with routers — got positive reviews from drivers and students. He said the heaviest usage was in the East Bankarea, a more rural location.

Sterling Beane, chief information officer for the West Virginia Department of Education, wrote in an email that, to his knowledge, Kanawha is the only school system in the state taking the step.

“We are hopeful that it will be a successful project and that others will follow suit,” he wrote.

The recommended maximum time in West Virginia for students to be on buses is a half-hour for elementary-schoolers, 45 minutes for middle-schoolers and an hour for high-schoolers. However, a report provided by the Department of Education shows that, on morning routes last school year, about 8,260 elementary-schoolers across the state were on buses longer than recommended, as were 3,160 middle-schoolers and 1,850 high-schoolers. That includes about 80 elementary students, 30 middle school students and 30 high school students in Kanawha.

School districts in other states have added Wi-Fi to their buses. Florida’s Miami-Dade County Public Schools, which, at 345,000 students, claims to be the nation’s fourth-largest district, began installing the service on buses in mid-August, spokesman John Schuster said.

California’s impoverished Coachella Valley Unified School District, according to an article this year in The Hechinger Report and Education Week, also recently started putting Wi-Fi on buses. It even began parking one in a trailer park at night, to continue providing Internet access outside of school, although the battery usually ran out after one hour, and the district was considering addressing the problem by putting a solar panel atop the bus.

Sparks said she’s spoken to Coachella’s technology director and said she loves the idea of using the buses to provide Internet to the community.

“We’re not quite there yet, but we hope that maybe we can eventually help communities by bringing it to them,” Sparks said.

She said the routers could provide access about 500 feet from each bus although, as of now, access is only limited to students’ school-assigned iPads.

“We want to be on the leading edge and be innovative,” she said, “so that we can give our students the best possible education that they can receive.”

Reach Ryan Quinn at, 304-348-1254, or follow @RyanEQuinn on Twitter.