A 15-passenger bus owned by the Berean Covenant Church in Urbana, Illinois, is helping students cross the digital divide so they can participate in online courses during the pandemic, which has prevented the local school district from holding in-person classes.
The bus doesn’t transport students anywhere. Instead, pastor Willie Comer or a church volunteer parks it in a neighborhood on weekdays so it can serve as a wireless hotspot for students whose families cannot afford internet access. The church asked the school district to recommend the location. “They know where it is most needed,” Comer says.
The bus is outfitted with equipment that transmits a wireless signal for up to 50 people. The signal can reach up to 350 feet depending on whether obstacles block its reception, Comer says.
“One of the blessings about the system is we can take it off the bus if we need to,” he adds.
Comer laughs as he says that he or the volunteer has to climb a ladder to place or remove the antenna from the top of the bus each time they move.
The church purchased the system with the assistance of a mission development grant from Love Mercy Do Justice. The system cost roughly $15,000, and the church purchased a generator after they discovered that the equipment was draining the bus’s battery.
The software allows students to access K-12 activities, and nearly all the students who access the signal are in elementary or middle school.
A national Rand Corporation study found that “data suggest that existing inequities for students in rural and high-poverty schools might be exacerbated by students’ limited access to the internet and communication with teachers as remote instruction continues.”
The bus parks in the neighborhood from 9 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. As many as 27 students have accessed the system at any one time.
“We really need five buses,” Comer said. The school district supplies the students with computer equipment as needed.
Another district recently awarded the church a grant to purchase a similarly outfitted bus to serve its students.