A Chicago-area student with autism uses an iPad on the school bus, which assists in keeping her engaged during the ride. A Chicago-area student with autism uses an iPad on the school bus, which assists in keeping her engaged during the ride.

Through the Cloud, tablets and various apps have revolutionized communication in every industry, including student transportation, these technologies have truly upped the ante for safely transporting the most vulnerable students, while also giving them a voice. New ways to share vital medical and behavioral information are providing an added layer of protection for children with special needs aboard the school bus.

Alexandra Robinson, executive director of the Office of Pupil Transportation within the New York City Department of Education, told STN that her department plans to launch two pilot projects utilizing new technology, one during this school year and the second in 2016-2017. She said the new Illumination Program is about “shedding the light” on all the potential new technologies designed for pupil transportation, from video cameras and routing programs to student ridership and tracking systems. 

The pilot involves implementing video surveillance on school buses to combat disciplinary problems, Robinson continued, and personnel will launch it on routes servicing students with special needs who are more likely to be the victims of bullying. In July, Robinson co-presented an STN EXPO session about trends in managing and disciplining students with special needs.

“You have students who are nonverbal, who can’t speak for themselves and sometimes you refer to the video to see exactly what happened on the bus. It will give us insight as to whether equipment is functioning properly or if behavior routines are going okay. We might see clues on video that are warning signs that maybe the driver or attendant didn’t pick up on,” said Robinson, who oversees transportation services for more than a million students, roughly two-thirds of whom have special needs. 

During the EXPO session, Robinson said she and her co-presenters discussed the benefits of tablets and communication boards that give nonverbal students the ability to interact with drivers, attendants and other students. “Almost all students have cellphones now, special education or not, and we’re trying to figure out how we can use that to our advantage,” she added.

Meanwhile, Susan Hamre, a speech language pathologist with the Giant Steps autism organization near Chicago, said iPads have “stormed” the world of special needs because kids on the spectrum are often adept at using technology despite their other learning challenges. 

“On a bus ride, it can help them make requests or answer questions if they are not verbal or they struggle with using speech,” she explained. “They can identify what is uncomfortable for them. Maybe it’s too cold or too hot, or people are talking too much. They can identify their fear or anxiety…and medical needs too: ‘I have a headache’ or ‘I need my medicine.’”

Depending on the students’ abilityies, they can type on the tablet or choose pictures that communicate their feelings. “In most cases, we can custom-design a communication or technology system for that particular person; for example, ‘My name is Suzie’ would be programmed into an iPad or into a Proloquo2go, an app that can go onto a laptop or tablet,” said Hamre, who also has a private practice in New Mexico. 

“If kids don’t have a communication device on the bus, it’s like saying, ‘Honey, you have a voice from 8:30 to 2:45, but then you’re on their own’…It absolutely makes the bus ride safer.”

‘A Magnificent Leap’

Josh Rice, transportation director at New Caney Independent School District in Texas, purchased tablets for most of his buses in 2013, and the following year implemented the SMART Tag system to assist with special needs routes. Rice said he chose this system, which logs boarding events and transmits information in real time, because it integrated with the district’s VersaTrans routing software.

“We just completed our first school year using SMART Tag. It’s truly a magnificent leap in student transportation to have information so readily available at your fingertips,” he told STN in July. “Being able to access important student information, route information and seating charts via a tablet solution has allowed drivers to perform their jobs even better.”

Currently, more than 100 bus drivers are using the Samsung Tab Active tablet, which assists them with daily tasks while providing access to each student’s IEP, BIP (Behavior Intervention Plan), allergy alerts and more. 

“The tablet also lets us know what type of special needs equipment is needed when the student scans on with their RFID tag. Furthermore, we are able to password-protect the information whereby it cannot be accessed if someone got ahold of the tablet,” Rice continued.

Navman Wireless provided tablets for 500 bus drivers as part of the New York City pilot project, said Robinson. Though these tablets were initially used to track students for Medicaid reimbursement purposes, she explained that it “morphed” into a ridership reporting program. 

“It requires driver input, so the drivers have to get to know the students, to know who’s on their bus at any given time,” she said, adding that drivers only use the unit when the vehicle is stopped. “In some cases, we actually have the bus attendant doing the tracking and entering the student information into the terminal, and not the driver…which is ideal.”

The first challenge, she recalled, was getting the route information to drivers via the Navman unit, which is similar to the iPad mini. The next challenge was figuring out how much student information to make available to drivers.

“Can they press three buttons on a terminal to get the student’s information, then look to see what’s the history of this child, what’s the IEP date, what are they allergic to, etcetera?” she said. “The big concern is you don’t want to have so much technology that the driver is unable to do what the driver does best, which is drive the bus...We just have to be careful not to replace good training with new technology.”

Sharing ‘Live’ Data

Robinson noted that many larger school districts have IEPs in an electronic system, and her office utilizes Special Education Student Information System, or SESIS. “With access, we can see the relevant parts of the student’s IEP. It’s not a new system, but it’s new that we have better access to it,” she said. “We also work very closely with the Department of Mental Health and Hygiene. We have an entire group of physicians, nurses and health directors who work with us so we’re able to see everything, even the medical stuff…We strongly encourage all departments to share student information.” 

Rice said productivity apps, such as Google Sheets, have enabled his transportation staff to consolidate student information (name, address, contacts, special equipment, BIP specifics, etc.) and share key documents “live” with transportation routers and special needs staff. 

“This has greatly improved the communication between the special needs department and transportation. Last year, the special needs department named a liaison that monitored the worksheet and assisted us in making sure IEPs were up-to-date,” he continued.

Yet barriers remain for some bus drivers, according to Hamre, who covers student privacy issues with drivers in her training sessions. She said many drivers are frustrated because their transportation departments follow the HIPAA (Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act) “to the letter” and refuse to share vital student information.

Hamre said she firmly believes bus staff should have access to all riders’ medical and behavioral needs, including potential triggers for seizures or meltdowns that could disrupt the bus ride and put the child — and others — in danger. “If school districts are tight about what they share, then they may not want too much information on a tablet,” she pointed out.

“When bus drivers and attendants do have tablets, they put safety systems in place to make sure they’re not just lying around (but) secure and out of reach of the students. Technology has a lot of pluses and a handful of minuses.”