I commonly hear safety professionals observe that it’s not a matter of if a tragedy will occur but when. Call it the law of averages or, worse, the result of risky decisions. But these days, we must all be prepared for the unthinkable and, as recent events have proved, the largely uncontrollable.
Usually, such conversations in the world of school transportation revolve around school bus crashes, child or employee injuries and fatalities, and mass shootings, as writer Art Gissendaner explores this month, starting on page 34. But nothing has prepared the industry for the anxiety and fear that has resulted from COVID-19.
The coronavirus has threatened to not only disrupt but cripple student transportation and public education as well as all walks of our domestic and international society. The economy is tumbling to 2008 recession levels. The outbreak has reduced commerce and canceled or postponed public gatherings.
Fear usually reserved for science fiction and horror movies has made its way into our everyday lives. That panic is at an all-time high, no thanks to the media, social, traditional or otherwise. The Spanish Flu of 1918 produced shock- waves throughout the U.S. and the world, or what constituted as such over a century ago. But nowhere near to this extent. After all, when was the last time a national emergency at this magnitude was called in response to an infectious disease? Try never.
We are in uncharted territory as an industry, a nation and a world. You know when sporting events are canceled that something is truly and terribly wrong. While paling in comparison to the fatalities, so far at least, this is 9/11 stuff.
More and more states and local schools announce closures or expanded and extended digital learning for students, rather than welcoming them to the traditional classroom. What will the long-term impact be on student transporters? Far too many school bus drivers, for example, continue to be paid hourly, with limited guaranteed hours and without health benefits. So far, many school districts have proactively responded by keeping operations and paychecks flowing.
One could argue that economic downturn that has resulted from the coronavirus outbreak—in fact, the stock market plummeted as a result of the pandemic, and once again retirement accounts are being decimated—might provide a boost to the industry’s anemic driver shortage, similar to that felt a decade ago. But that hope seems distant and does little to feed and clothe families today.
Working parents are left to figure out longer-term plans for supervising their children who are kept out of school or engaged in remote online learning. Especially if those parents happen to also work for the school district, say the aforementioned transportation departments that are still in operation.
There are far too many questions and not many answers. Yet all is not gloom and doom. Every challenge presents opportunities.
One of these dawned on me as I watched President Donald Trump’s news conference on March 13, when he declared the national emergency. States and local communities could mobilize school buses during the widespread school closures for transporting residents, especially in rural areas, to the new drive-through testing sites. They could deliver food throughout communities, especially to students who rely on school for breakfast and lunch. And indeed, the latter soon became a reality across the nation.
Ahead of us is the latest example of necessary leadership provided by student transporters in putting the health and safety of students as well as employees first and foremost. This is precisely how and why we knew that postponing the TSD Conference last month was not only the right call but the only call to make.
There are certainly obstacles ahead but also opportunities to reinvent, rediscover and rejuvenate. The immediacy of addressing local community needs remains paramount, but don’t miss or neglect the opportunities to help shape the future of students, their families and the entire industry.
Editor’s Note: As reprinted from the April issue of School Transportation News.