As more classes go digital, wireless access is no longer confined to brick buildings but is spreading to school buses.
Forget snoozing or socializing. En route to athletic games or other events, Chaska and Chanhassen students can now do their homework online, upload photos from field trips and read Web articles from their bus seats. Their school district, Eastern Carver County, is the first in the Twin Cities and second in the state to bring Wi-Fi to buses, joining a trend nationwide of turning raucous rides into quiet study time.
"It's the future," said transportation coordinator John Thomas.
This month, the west-metro school district finished outfitting 25 buses with the technology and plans to expand it to all 110 buses so kids — some of whom have 45-minute rides from rural homes — can also connect.
"I think it's really important that transportation is a part of the school district and not a hindrance," Thomas said.
From Arizona to Indiana, school districts are slowly adding the service. In Minnesota, the trailblazer was rural Bemidji, becoming a model for schools across Minnesota and into Iowa.
"School districts are strapped, but more and more are seeing the value of this," said Greg Liedl, transportation director for the Bemidji district.
With wireless access on everything from planes to trains, students now expect the service on school buses, especially as more classrooms trade physical textbooks for digital sites or become "flipped," letting students watch videotaped lectures at home and work with teachers one-on-one in class.
But there's also an unintended benefit. "The bus drivers have said it's been some of the quietest trips they've been on," Thomas said.
The 25 Wi-Fi buses are in use every day by the two high schools and three middle schools, he added. It cost about $13,000 to start up the technology and there will be about $5,000 a year in service fees from the district's $4 million transportation budget.
While Chaska schools mostly use the Wi-Fi buses for activities, the Bemidji buses are used more on daily routes, which can average an hour each way in the sprawling district.
Liedl started Wi-Fi in 2011 with two buses that trekked 90 minutes to the Red Lake Indian Reservation, where cellphone service was patchy. Now, the 5,000-student district has 14 wireless-equipped buses.
He calls the new technology a success, based on tracking the amount of data used by students, two-thirds of whom have their own Wi-Fi devices.
A cost not everyone can pay
As school districts add wireless buses, there may be more pressure to provide students with devices such as iPads and Kindles, given that not all students can afford them.
Some districts, such as Minnetonka and Eden Prairie, already provide iPads to every student at either the middle or high school.
But not everyone is willing to pay. In Chaska, which doesn't have enough wireless devices to give to students, a 2011 technology referendum was rejected by voters.
That doesn't change the fact that students are finding more and more classwork online. For example, eighth-grader Shofita Baych uses her laptop to access everything from a math textbook and worksheets on Google Docs to assignments e-mailed from her teacher or posted on Moodle.
"It's easier because you have everything in one place," she said.
After she and her classmates packed a bus last week to go to a history competition in Robbinsdale, chatter hushed as their heads bowed down, concentrating on iPhones and school iPads that they used to fill out a survey. As eighth-grader Lauren Mattson passed the iPad to a classmate, she said having Wi-Fi is no longer a novelty, but something they expect.
"We're in that generation using electronic devices all the time," she said. "When you hear [somewhere has] Wi-Fi, you think 'that's cool.' "
On the bus, Internet access is provided at the same access tier as in school — allowing students to open district folders but filtered to block certain websites. Social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter are still allowed, but student Megan Vogt said she thinks most kids still use the Wi-Fi for homework.
"If you forget to do an assignment, you could quickly do it [on the bus]," she said.
For teachers, it's yet another way to expand classrooms' reach beyond the traditional four walls.
"It just gives us a guaranteed way for kids to access learning," history teacher Cullen Nelson said. "It's only going to keep growing."