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Stevin, a fifth-grader at Lynch Elementary School, takes care of schoolwork outside a Wi-Fi-enabled school bus that visited his northeast Las Vegas neighborhood on Monday, May 18, 2020. (Jeff Scheid/The Nevada Independent)

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As wind swept through a mobile home community Monday morning, a yellow school bus pulled up to a vacant pool and basketball court.

Aurora Aguilar parked and hopped out, carrying posters that flapped in the turbulent air. She fastened them to the side of the bus, creating a how-to guide for students wanting to access the internet. And then she waited — an act unfamiliar to bus drivers accustomed to strict schedules.

But, in the age of coronavirus, school bus drivers have heeded a new call for help. Twenty-eight Clark County School District bus drivers are bringing WiFi capability to students along carefully selected routes. Another 14 drivers are on back-up duty.

“If they ever have another emergency like this again in the world, this is a pretty good idea,” said Aguilar, who, like the other WiFi bus drivers, lives near her route in the northeast valley. 

A WiFi-enabled school bus from the Clark County School District visited a northeast Las Vegas neighborhood on Monday, May 18, 2020. (Jeff Scheid/The Nevada Independent)

The Clark County School District deployed the WiFi buses in early May and then added another route last week. The buses project WiFi in a 400-feet radius, allowing some children to remain inside while they log on. For everyone else who needs to walk closer, a sign attached to the bus says, “Please remember to practice social distancing.”

The WiFi-equipped buses aim to reduce the digital divide that’s preventing students from learning while schools remain closed. If Chromebook distribution was the first part of the equation, consider this the second. The 14 routes, chosen based on suspected need, include stops at parks, grocery stores, apartment complexes, weekly rentals and other low-income neighborhoods where internet access may be spotty.

The Pew Research Center estimated that nearly one quarter of American adults did not have broadband internet service at their home in 2019. 

The 320,000-student school district doesn’t know how many children lack internet access at home, but it’s at least in the thousands. More than 8,000 students have a documented exemption for distance learning because they don’t have a technology device, internet access or they’re unable to pick up academic paper packets. 

That’s why school districts across the nation — including in Sacramento, California; Austin, Texas; and South Bend, Indiana — have turned to WiFi-equipped buses amid the coronavirus shutdown. Cindy Ozaeta, a transportation operations supervisor for the Clark County School District, wondered if the idea would catch on in the Las Vegas area as well.

During the first week of May, 727 unique devices logged onto the WiFi provided by the buses, according to school district data. Because siblings may share a Chromebook or tablet, the number of students using it is likely much higher.

“It definitely has been slowly growing,” she said.

Children didn’t immediately flock to Aguilar’s WiFi stop Monday morning. Almost an hour went by before a family with five children made its way to a tree near the bus and set up shop. They brought one district-issued Chromebook shared among the siblings, a TV tray table, fruit cups and Doritos. This has been their routine lately.

Their father, Ernesto Corona, watched them from a distance. He said the family doesn’t have internet at home aside from the unreliable service on their phones. Before the district launched the WiFi buses, the children — in kindergarten through fifth grade — relied on paper packets to keep up with schoolwork.

Genesis, 10, said distance learning has been difficult. She and her siblings attended Lynch Elementary School before the fast-spreading virus put a halt to in-person gatherings.

“I’m already done with everything, but they’re not,” she said, gesturing to her brothers and sister. “I kind of miss school.”

The Clark County School District’s final day of the academic year is Wednesday. District leaders have not announced whether the WiFi buses will continue operating during summer.

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