Google thinks your kid’s bus should have Wi-Fi. This Lexington school is trying it

Google Rolling Study Hall bus
Google Rolling Study Hall bus Berkeley County School District

Google is coming to town next week, and it may help your child do better in school.

Google’s “rolling study halls” — school buses equipped with Wi-Fi, mobile routers and on-board tutors — first took to the streets in South Carolina a few years ago, when the Berkeley County School District got its first two of these special buses.

Pelion Middle School started using the buses last year as a pilot, Lexington 1 Superintendent Gregory Little said, and will celebrate the launch of its first school year with the program on Monday, at a ribbon-cutting ceremony.

This perk makes Pelion Middle one of fewer than 20 Google Rolling Study Hall programs throughout the United States.

Regular school buses have been upgraded with technology to help bridge the “homework gap” — the disparity between students who have high-speed internet access at home and those who don’t.

In rural and remote areas of the country, some students have internet access only at school or at the library. Eighteen percent of children living in rural areas of the U.S. have an “unreliable dial-up connection or no internet access at all” at home, according to an April 2018 report from the Institute of Education Sciences.

If the children are Hispanic or Latino, 26 percent will have limited to no internet access at home. For African-American students in rural areas, that number jumps to 41 percent.

Those numbers intersect with the increasing demand for technology-driven curriculum. In 2015, about 88 percent of eighth-graders reported using a computer at home, and 80 percent reported using a computer for schoolwork on a weekday, according to the IES report.

Pelion Middle had a student population of about 575 during the 2017-18 academic year, and more than half of them qualified for free or reduced-cost meals — that was one factor Google looked at when selecting which school districts to launch Rolling Study Halls in. Google was also looking to target districts where students had bus commutes of at least 45 minutes each way, the News & Observer of Raleigh reported.

Some students at Pelion ride the bus for as long as 90 minutes one way, Little said in an Aug. 7 school board meeting.

“If you add that up, morning and afternoon, they’re actually going to school an extra day a week,” he said.

That time could be used to get homework, studying and extra learning done.

As a rural area of Lexington County, Pelion struggles with connectivity issues. The local branch of the Lexington County Public Library System offers free Wi-Fi 24 hours a day and seven internet stations for adults, but there is a demand for more.

“This has been a problem for the community for a long time,” said Shirley Sprenne, branch manager for the Pelion branch library. “We see the need.”

Oftentimes Pelion police will patrol the library parking lot in the evening, Sprenne said, because people will sit outside to use the free Wi-Fi.

Other school districts tapped by Google faced similar issues. In Berkeley, there will soon be 41 Rolling Study Halls (about 20 percent of the fleet). But not long ago, the wait to rent a hotspot from the local library was almost a year long, said Diane Driggers, the school district’s chief information and technology officer.

The novelty of the buses may have worn off on returning students as the district begins its second school year on the program, she said, but students without internet at home still benefit greatly. And so do bus drivers, who have noticed more peaceful commutes since the students got their technology.

“The bus drivers are some of the biggest fans,” she said.

Lexington 1 declined to comment on how Pelion Middle was chosen as a pilot program school until Monday’s ribbon-cutting. Google would not release information about the Pelion program until the ribbon-cutting ceremony on Monday at 1:30 p.m.