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How school buses and federal dollars could help Hall, Gainesville students get connected this year

Hall County and Gainesville City school students who do not have access to the internet will have new connection options this fall, thanks to federal dollars and a creative school bus initiative.  

Both school systems will be receiving WiFi transmitters paid for by the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act, or CARES Act, and the transmitters will be plugged into buses. The buses will be parked in various locations around the community, giving students the ability to connect to the networks and work on school assignments during periods of remote learning.  

The Hall County School District will be receiving 33 WiFi transmitters, supported by Verizon, while the Gainesville City School System will be receiving nine. 

Funding for the devices was announced by Gov. Brian Kemp’s office on Thursday, July 30. The state is allocating $6 million in federal coronavirus relief dollars to provide the transmitters to public schools. Service costs will be covered by the state for one year, and as long as local districts cover the service costs after that, they school districts will not be required to return the transmitters to the state. 

"While the internet access gap has come into sharper focus during the COVID-19 pandemic, securing connectivity for all of Georgia students is a long-term need,” Kemp said in a statement. ”This is a major step to address the gap for this school year so that all Georgia’s children have access to learning opportunities in and out of school.” 

An application document for the program shows school systems will be required to publish a deployment plan on their website providing details on when and where the transmitters will be placed. 

The document says the first transmitters will be distributed as early as mid-August, but it does not provide further details on when they will arrive. 

The application also notes that school districts that do not publish their deployment plans “at least two days prior to partial or complete school closure” will need to return WiFi transmitters to the Georgia Department of Education for redeployment to other districts. 

Aaron Turpin, assistant superintendent of technology for Hall schools, said the state has not provided any updates yet on when Hall County should expect its 33 WiFi transmitters to arrive.  

Turpin said the Hall County School District already had 20 buses equipped with WiFi transmitters available for students enrolled at Lanier College & Career Academy and Ivester Early College who need to complete coursework while traveling to the school buildings. The new, state-funded transmitters will be used to upgrade the older units already installed on Hall County buses, he said. 

“What we’re going to do is we’re going to take 20 of the 33 and replace the older models with newer models, and then add 13 to our fleet. And then I have asked principals to identify locations throughout their districts that would be a good place to park the buses,” Turpin said. 

He said the networks would be filtered so parents would not have to be concerned about their children accessing inappropriate material.  

School officials say more details on Hall County’s plan for where the buses will be parked will be forthcoming. 

The Gainesville City School System will receive nine transmitters, but Jill Hobson, chief technology officer for Gainesville City schools, said she is unsure when they will be arriving. Hobson said the school district is still working on its plan for when and where the buses will be stationed, but more information would be provided as it is available.  

“Once we get them installed, we’re going to be looking at how we can best position those to serve the most students possible,” she said. “And it’s not just numbers of students, it’s also where can we park the buses safely, what parameters have to be around how that bus is in use. We’re just not there yet.” 

The Gainesville City School System already approved a purchase of $40,000-worth of outdoor WiFi antennas in July.