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Buses could be hotspots for LCSS

The Liberty County Board of Education will consider placing wireless hotspots on parked buses throughout the county to provide internet access to students who do not have it at home.

The issue will go before school board members during Tuesday’s meeting at the board office. The meeting begins at 5:30 p.m.

The hotspots are necessary, officials say, because in 2014, the Liberty County School System started the Liberty Learning Experience which put iPads in the hands of students in grades four through 12. The iPad initiative puts an emphasis on digital and web-based content, making internet access a key component to learning.

"Why have the device (iPad) if you cannot communicate with the world?" said Roger Reese, the district’s chief financial officer. "So what we’re trying to do is pilot this for the year, internet access for all our children. The pilot buses are 24 buses with Wi-Fi. This will allow approximately 60 percent of the Liberty County students who do not have internet access to utilize the internet. We will have 24 school buses stationed as hot spots throughout the county—14 in the city, five in the east and five in the west."

Buses will be stationed in areas with the highest population of students such as Gum Branch, Reese said.

Chief Information Officer Patti Crane said the hotspots can be accessed from 2:30 p.m. to 10:30 p.m., including weekends, but the times can be adjusted to accommodate students who do assignments late at night. But with a Wi-Fi range of 200 feet, students will have to be near the buses.

John Lyles, LCSS director of transportation, said he is working with law enforcement to make sure they are aware of the parked buses around the county and possibly seeing children congregate around buses.

Board member Verdell Jones asked if the buses will be parked on public or private property.

Lyles said both.

"We talked with the city manager and also talked with some managers of apartment complexes and they actually welcomed this idea of internet access for students," Lyles said. "Some of the devices will be placed on buses that drivers drive to their home and park, others on buses that we identified as surplus…It’s really an earth-shattering program that we’re launching in Liberty County."

Jones emphasized it was important to get written permission from private property owners to allow buses to be parked there.

Liberty County School System Superintendent Dr. Valya Lee said once the pilot program starts they may realize the need for two additional buses in outlying areas. She said there are still a lot of little logistics that have not been worked out yet and they will also provide a list of neighboring businesses with Wi-Fi.

Lee called the initiative a stopgap measure until there are more cell towers in the county.

Board member Carol Guyett asked if Century Link still provides discounts to families for the iPad initiative. Crane said Comcast and Century Link offer discounts to families who qualify for reduced lunch, but families are not taking advantage of the discount.

Board member Marcia Anderson asked about blocking harmful sites.

The district will work with vendor Kajeet, an educational company that provides safe, mobile broadband for school systems. The hotspots have a built-in filter, as well as the iPads, which re-direct students from inappropriate sites, Crane said. Software for the hotspot can also provide reports of time and data usage.

Lee said she heard about bus hotspots at a conference and about 50 to 60 school districts, mostly in the Midwest, were doing it. She said Liberty will be the first in Georgia to try the initiative. It was the first district in the state to provide students iPads.

More information such as where they buses will be parked will be provided at the next board meeting.

The pilot program will reportedly be funded through district Special Purpose Local Options Sales Tax.

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