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Student Transportation Safety Is No Game

Fall is here, the season of great competition. This month, the World Series pits the best baseball teams from the American and National Leagues against each other. College football and the NFL are in full swing. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is announcing the winners of this summer’s Clean School Bus Program competitive grant. And next month, the rodeo returns to the TSD Conference in Frisco, Texas.

As Taylor Ekbatani reports, starting on page 18, school district transportation departments are either reeling or reveling, following the school startup crunch. She writes about a couple of districts that took a punch to the nose with late routes exacerbated by the driver shortage and technology failures as well as a couple of districts that not only survived the first days of school but thrived.

The hiring and retaining of school bus drivers, mechanics, dispatchers, routers, trainers directors of transportation has become perhaps the greatest competition school districts have faced in decades (alongside teacher and principal shortages, of course). The leading industry opponents when it comes to potential drivers include Amazon, FedEx, UPS and an ever-growing stable of rideshare companies that flout big sign-on bonuses and promises of guaranteed hours, at least the flexibility of applicants to choose their own.

The easy response to commercial package delivery services is that school buses transport the most precious cargo, a fact that resonates with those who deeply care for children and want to positively impact their educations and futures. But rideshare options abound, more specifically transportation network companies, or TNCs, and similar yet very different alternative transportation companies.

These differences can result in competing public utility commission regulations that govern TNCs and the state regulations that govern alternative transportation companies for transporting students. The National Congress on School Transportation is seeking to level that playing field with a writing committee on alternative transportation that began forming this summer.

Perhaps the better name would have been the writing committee on non-school bus transportation, as more districts are operating sedans and minivans to transport students with IEPs or who are experiencing homelessness. Regardless, the group is charged with developing guidelines for state delegates to vote on in May 2025, for inclusion in the National School Bus Specifications & Procedures. Speakers at the TSD Conference next month will discuss what some of those could be.

This is heresy to the school bus purists. What about the school bus safety record? Meanwhile, school buses are skyrocketing in price, and school districts can’t find drivers. Something has to give. The NCST deliberations in Des Moines, Iowa, are sure to be action-packed. NASDPTS, which organizes the event, should sell tickets.

No matter what side of the new great debate you are on don’t worry, school bus seatbelts will be a hot topic at both the NAPT Annual Conference later this month and at the NASDPTS Annual Conference next everyone can agree that student transportation has changed and will continue to change.

While the outward appearance of school buses remains the same to the untrained eye, the technology inside is worlds apart from what Frank Cyr and his peers discussed during that first NCST in 1939, when the little red schoolhouse was the brand icon of a public education. Today, we have electric school buses, GPS that tells us where the vehicles and children are in real time, AI-powered intelligent routing, predictive camera systems and sensors, collision mitigation systems, etc. They would all be unfathomable to Cyr, the father of the yellow school bus.

That first NCST meeting at Teachers College, Columbia University in New York City, underwritten by the Rockefeller Foundation and at the time merely a conference — 65 years later, the event was renamed to Congress — created National School Bus Yellow, a revolutionary idea at the time and not without its fair share of debate. But ever since, yellow school buses have become a universal symbol for children and learning everywhere. Seventy-five years from now, what will that icon be?

Editor’s Note: As reprinted in the October 2023 issue of School Transportation News. A previous reference to federal regulations for alternative transportation companies was removed because they only apply to commercial drivers. The print edition also noted a school bus mechanic and inspection competition that was originally scheduled for this month. A decision to postpone the event until the spring was made after the magazine went to press.

Related: School is Back, So Are Safety Challenges
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Related: How Technology Enhances Alternative Student Transportation
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