As I have reported on before and I’m sure to report on again, there are still too many questions circling the pupil transportation industry, with few, if any answers on what the next school year will bring amid COVID-19.
As the first day of school looms over the heads of transportation directors and contractors, many realize they don’t have all the answers they normally would at this time of the year. However, if we have learned anything about the new school year, it is that it’s going to be nothing we’ve ever seen before.
I can only imagine what transportation professionals are feeling as they proceed into the unknown. Besides the fear of contracting COVID-19 themselves, they have to also protect their employees and the students they transport.
How are you ensuring your employees are protected? Are you anticipating a shortage of drivers due to the large majority of the school bus driver pool being 65 and older, having underlying health conditions, or both?
In a webinar hosted by the American Bus Association Women in Buses in conjunction with motorcoach industry on Wednesday, industry professionals attempted to talk through some of these concerns.
I joined a panel that also included John Meier with Badger Bus based out of Wisconsin, Pam Martinez with Dattco Motor Coach in Connecticut, and Alison Klein Sherman with Klein Transportation out of Pennsylvania.
The company representatives discussed the ways they are recognizing their staff members and ensuring safety during this time. But they also said to expect some staffing loss due to fear. For example, Martinez said Connecticut Gov. Ned Lamont announced that anyone with underlying health conditions or over the age of 60 should consider not returning to work. Instead, he recommended that these people continue to file for unemployment, which she said could impact her operations.
“We have a huge workforce of people who are over 60, and then we also have people that are high risk, or have family members that are high risk, so that’s going to be challenging,” Martinez explained.
She noted that to combat the fear being experienced, her company is committed to doing a ton of communication efforts.
Martinez added that Dattco is making sure its employees know that they are coming back to a safe work environment. She said several task forces were created to make this initiative possible. These upgrades include removing the driver’s room to discourage congregation. She said the company is doing everything it can to make the staff environment as safe as possible. She explained that another initiative is to have every bus terminal smell clean, but she noted this was all about perception.
“These facilities have been closed for months. There’s no coronavirus there, but when you go into a place and it smells dingey or there’s dirt, that’s not giving you a secure feeling,” she explained. “When you walk in and its bright, clean, and it’s been painted, it gives a perception that it’s a safe work environment.”
Along with that, she noted that Dattco is sending out messages to its employees stating how much they miss them. She also noted that every driver upon return is being given a safety kit that includes five masks, goggles, a bottle with cleaning disinfectant, a rag, gloves, and hand sanitizer.
Sherman said her company hosts a weekly Zoom chat with her drivers, and she’s receiving a lot of questions from them regarding what the schools are doing, as well as how Klein Transportation is addressing general employee safety. She said in addition to Zoom meetings and email correspondence, the company is following up with a phone call to each driver individually to check on them.
She noted that one way Klein Transportation is trying to make the drivers feel safer is by leaving the front row on both sides of the bus open to create more space between the driver and the students.
However, Sherman said she hasn’t officially heard if drivers are leaving or not, but she’s concerned that they will lose a lot of their senior drivers. This could create challenges, especially at a time when they could need additional buses due to a reduced capacity.
Although, a recent parent survey indicated that 60 percent plan to take their kids to school themselves, which will help with capacity concerns, and the shortage of drivers. However, that results in making the commute for those children less safe.
Meier said his operations has made sure to keep drivers and office staff apart, so no one is face to face. He noted that Badger Bus even added portable toilets in the bus lot, so drivers don’t have to come inside, as well as holding mostly virtual trainings.
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Related: New York State School Bus Driver Discusses COVID-19 Challenges
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He said that while he understands the parent’s fears of putting their children back on the school bus but he anticipates that fear will eventually subside, and operations will somewhat be back to normal, once parents see the safety elements put into place. He said one thing to consider with parents driving their children themselves, is the overflow of the drop-off area and whether or not school buses will fit into the school with all the additional traffic.
He said, however, in his operations that a lot of drivers haven’t made up their minds regarding coming back, and it could come down to their gut reaction at the last possible second. He advised transportation officials to do their best to be prepared for that. He said, that’s all we can do, is our best.
As I listen to more webinars and sit in on the discussions with more student transporters, I’ve learned that the fear isn’t going away. Maybe it’s not fear of contracting COVID-19 itself, but the fear of what’s to come, the fear of the unknown.
However, what I do know from covering this industry is that the love of students and the yellow school bus is above anything else, and if there is a way to transport students to school, the people in this industry will get it done, safely and efficiently.
Listen to the full webinar below.