America’s school districts are sitting on billions of dollars in stimulus funding, including the most recent $122 billion passed by Congress and signed into law by President Biden in addition to the $70 billion approved last year. While technology for students and teachers to better facilitate remote and hybrid learning, as well as PPE are likely a top priority, district transportation directors are looking for their share.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommendations for the reopening of schools and use of school buses is thorough—establish physical barriers between drivers and students, leave seats open to encourage social distancing, consider unidirectional foot-traffic (load the bus from back to front and unload from front to back) and surface cleaning—and practical. And while we hope vaccinations for youth will be available by the start of the 2021 2022 school year, the fact is more can be done to keep drivers and students safe on the bus even in a post-pandemic world.
While districts must use 20 percent of stimulus funds to address learning loss, there is a wide range of investments that fall under school reopening and “CDC-recommended mitigation strategies and preparing for and sustaining in-person operations safely,” which includes school district provided transportation. Now is the time to earmark these funds for innovative technologies that ease the minds of parents, reduce the burden on school districts, and safely transport students to and from school.
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District transportation directors have an opportunity to approach their administration for use of these funds without going through the usual long and arduous grant proposal process that is typically associated with obtaining funding for school bus fleet technology advancements. While there is a lot to go around, I cannot stress enough the “squeaky wheel” approach by sending letters and getting a seat at the table to discuss benefits of this kind of technology with district administrators.
Stimulus funds can be earmarked for the following technologies that will have long-term benefits and returns:
- Electronic management of sanitization protocols: A typical school bus fits two students per seat—providing an almost infinite potential to spread pathogens. Kids will be kids. They may not fully understand the importance of standard hygiene, making it critical to introduce ventilation during and disinfection at the end of each trip. Districts nationwide are leveraging electronic inspection reporting systems to guide detailed cleaning protocols that include a schedule, supplies, instructions, and a checklist of high-touch areas.
- Electronic clock-in and clock-out: Eliminate paper and any physical contact points between drivers and other staff.
- Digital rider visibility and verification: Support contact tracing strategies so you know who rode which bus and when, so that you can notify the right people of potential exposure if necessary. And when we’re more back to normal, as student schedules and bus routes change, avoid students boarding the wrong bus or getting off at the wrong stop.
- Uber-like tracking of school buses: Give parents and guardians peace of mind knowing that their child has arrived at school and home safely. This significantly reduces phone calls from parents and guardians to school districts inquiring about route and schedule changes and bus whereabouts. As hybrid learning continues, parents and guardians can also track buses delivering meals, homework packets, laptops and other supplies.
- Health screening: Screen drivers and attendants for symptoms before every shift with a quick electronic (contactless) health questionnaire, to reduce risk of exposure, if a driver feels unwell. Given the current driver shortage in school districts across America, health screenings can help directors manage their staffs and substitute drivers efficiently.
Whether to aid in the return to school or just preparing for a even safer and more efficient school transportation fleet ahead of the next school year, transportation directors deserve their cut of the stimulus funds. But do not expect funds to automatically allocate to transportation departments—accessing these dollars will require an effective pitch for the value-add and persistence.
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Consider partnering with a trusted resource to guide you through this process. Customer service teams can help strategize and provide tools for ensuring your transportation department knows how much is allocated to your district and does not miss out on this most recent round of stimulus funding.
H. Kevin Mest is the senior vice president of passenger services for Zonar. He has over 25 years of experience in the school bus industry, having also served in leadership positions with contractors Illinois Central School Bus and First Student.
Editor’s Note: As reprinted in the June 2021 issue of School Transportation News