Following up on a panel discussion presented over the summer, some answers to transportation questions are finally falling into place, as students in some areas are riding school buses again.
Getting back to normal, whatever that now means, has been the theme of this past six months. Yet as fall has arrived, the conversation is no longer about returning to how student transportation operated pre-pandemic. Instead, it centers on embracing the new normal and taking transportation to where it needs to be.
In a webinar on Wednesday hosted by the American Bus Association’s Women in Buses Council, industry professionals provided insight into their operations and what changes they’ve embraced as they transport students again.
While the challenge of the school bus driver shortage remains prevalent, transportation officials shared they are staying connected with their staff, updating cleaning procedures, and hosting virtual training.
I joined John Meier with Badger Bus in Wisconsin, Pam Martinez with Dattco Motor Coach in Connecticut, and Alison Klein Sherman with Klein Transportation in Pennsylvania on the panel.
The company representatives discussed the transportation services they are providing now. Klein said her company is providing services to one school bus contract that is currently in session. She explained that staff is providing consistent transportation to elementary school students, yet middle and high school service varies based on the current hybrid education model.
Klein said that the key right now is for transportation directors and companies to be willing to adapt and to learn as they go. She said Klein Transportation is utilizing technology to include a cleaning pre-trip inspection checklist, which has been incorporated into the fleet management system.
She is also working with her school district to come up with a better seating chart tracking system, as she reported that it’s been a challenge to ensure students remain six feet apart. She said this system would be extremely helpful if one student did test positive for COVID-19. It would enable the staff to determine which students need to be quarantined.
Meanwhile, Martinez said Dattco is running routes for every possible combination of school reopening plans. She said some school districts are starting virtually, some are going five days a week, and others are following a hybrid model. She said the differing schedules do help some with the driver shortage that the company is experiencing because they for adequate coverage of routes.
Martinez also noted that the capacity on school buses is down, as a majority of parents are choosing to transport their own children to school.
Meier said Badger Bus is transporting K-2 students going to certain schools. The company is also transporting about 60 percent of students with special needs out of Madison to select locations. He said the passenger capacity on yellow school buses is limited to 12 students per run, and the company is implementing seating charts and using video cameras as a contract tracing system, to see where students are seated and who they are in contact with.
However, with these nothing-but-normal routes, the companies shared they are still facing driver shortages, which is something School Transportation News has reported on since the start of the pandemic.
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A recent School Transportation News survey conducted in August found that out of 82 school districts or bus companies responding, five is the average number of drivers that operations are short due to COVID-19. One district reported 30 school bus drivers lost at the end of the summer.
Martinez said Dattco increased the amount of its employee referral program significantly, which she said seems to be helping with the driver shortage. She said Dattco has put a lot of resources into getting back to school and implementing awareness training for every driver, noting that they are doing everything possible to create a safe working environment.
Because of this, she said, the company hasn’t lost as many drivers as was expected. But what really is hurting her company is how backed-up the Department of Motor Vehicles is in Connecticut. She explained that the Connecticut DMV is fully booked for permit tests until the middle of November, which presents a huge problem when trying to continue training and recruiting new drivers.
She explained that she’s losing those drivers who have already gone through the classroom training because they can’t wait over a month to get their permit.
On the other hand, Klein said her company has been fortunate to only lose a few drivers this school year. She said the training program for the motorcoach side of the business also addresses school bus driving. It encourages the motorcoach drivers to also get their “S” endorsement. Because of this, a handful of their coach drivers are able to fill in the holes left behind by the school bus drivers who left.
Like Martinez, Klein said she is also offering a bonus referral program and ongoing virtual training.
Meier said Badger Bus has also adapted virtual training, which started early in the summer. He noted the company is also doing virtual hiring, and the only time staff meets candidates is when they are onboarded.
While it’s a challenge to stay in contact with drivers during this time, Meier said staff are sending out text messages, and linking drivers to more communications available.
He advised one way to keep drivers connected is for transportation officials to get on the radio and spend about a minute chatting with the drivers about their day. He said because the company discourages drivers from entering into the office, this simple gesture can go a long way.
Going forward all panelists encouraged constant communication between staff and the surrounding community.
Watch the full webinar below. (Yes, my name is misspelled.)