One of the many things I love about the school transportation industry is that we’ve acted on the phrase, “see something, say something,” long before it was trending. We are more often than not self-regulated, and the “rules” and standards under which we operate daily have been created by us, and then disseminated as a result of our own desire for continuous improvement. The majority of us believe that the school bus is an extension of the classroom, and as such, we are educators, educators who transport.
So, what’s been happening in the world? That countdown on New Year’s Eve 2019 seems so long ago, and 2020 is definitely not what we expected. More importantly, what have we learned about others and our own mental well-being?
The good part of being in the business of education is that we are (or at least should be) constantly learning. These past months and weeks, we’ve Zoomed, ‘webinared’ and teleconferenced to help each other and those we transport be safe when we get back on the road (pun intended). But what are we doing to address issues so that our passengers feel safe?
A lot of people are talking about safety regarding physical health considerations, cleaning of buses, routing/timing and staggered scheduling. All are important, of course, but I don’t hear the practical and personal part. We have never been theorists, we are practitioners. Putting our words, thoughts and ideas into practice has always made sense to us. So, where is the mental health and human piece?
We need to figure out ways to communicate with students who cannot or don’t respond, students with disabilities as well as their non-disabled peers. We need to develop options for wearing masks for children who have tactile sensitivity and don’t want anything touching their face (these are often the same students who don’t want to use finger paint because it gets their fingers ‘icky’—it’s a feeling).
Support personnel, para-educators, bus attendants, etc., must have guidance on how they can assist, not only physically but as communicators with passengers in their care. Even the most withdrawn and boisterous still need one-on-one support, in all definitions of the word. Think of how the spacing not only physically separates us but also affects us mentally. Social distancing can also mean emotional distancing.
I am worried about our students and passengers who already live with that isolated feeling daily, and the bus may be the one place where the inner loneliness is alleviated, if only for an hour a day. I think it’s unrealistic to assume our teams can handle school reopening, so we must have some thoughtful ideas that we are prepared to address.
As leaders, how have we trained to focus on the human emotions of our students and transportation staff? Do we have answers for the questions that we may be asked? Our customers (parents, students) will want to know if it’s
OK to board the school bus again. How will we know? How will we know if our children will be OK emotionally? Will we be prepared to ask and address the situation if they are not? Will we be able to speak to issues on policy, procedure and anti-bias training? Do our teams reflect the diversity of those we transport? Who and how are we speaking to children? If we don’t know, where do our transporters go to get those answers?
All of this can be overwhelming, and unfortunately, when the training isn’t there, personal experience (both good and bad,) becomes the way those responses are formed. We may have had preconceived notions about COVID-19, but preconception has no place on our buses and must be eliminated for the mental well-being of us all. Our employees, teachers, parents and students come with built-in biases. Just as this industry stepped up for anti-bullying, we need to get back to work to re-vet and re-train our teams as well as spot our own biases so that we don’t project them on others.
We are great at the logistics but because we transport humans, we need to do better on the human side of things. Bringing knowledge to the table is what makes this industry run well, but let’s be mindful to bring our emotional knowledge to the table alongside the practical.
As educators who transport, we need to make sure our buses are not just physically safe but emotionally safe as well.
Alexandra Robinson, M.Ed., is an industry consultant and past president of the National Association for Pupil Transportation. In addition to being a former school district director of transportation in both California and New York, she is also a tenured faculty member of the Transporting Students with Disabilities & Special Needs National Conference, a frequent speaker and trainer, and a founding member of the industry group Women in Transportation. Hear more from her on this topic in Episode 12 of the School Transportation Nation podcast: