As I watched President Joe Biden take office on Jan. 20, a message of unity was put forth. His ambitious plans to address climate change, increase COVID-19 vaccine distribution, implement a $15 federal minimum wage, and advance a pandemic relief proposal of $130 billion in funding for K-12 schools to reopen safely are big wish-list items to watch for in his first 100 days that will directly impact the school transportation industry.
How many times has your district opened this school year only to close again? It feels like a never-ending cycle of uncertainty. So, what is school transportation to do but sit on the sidelines and await the green light from the superintendent and school board. In the meantime, consider some technology adoption. If you haven’t taken advantage of the funding available to you, now is the time.
A U.S. Department of Education spokesperson recently confirmed to Editor-in-Chief Ryan Gray that ventilation systems installed on school buses are an acceptable use of funds under section 1313 of the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2021, to improve air quality and minimize the risk of coronavirus disease transmission. Biden’s “American Rescue Plan” also includes ventilation systems for school buildings, which time and again prove to include school buses. If it passes Congress, expect student transporters to have additional funds available for mitigating the onboard spread of COVID-19.
As we watch how Biden’s plan moves through Congress, public school districts and charter schools still have over $54 billion available via the current stimulus signed into law in late December by former President Donald Trump, to respond to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Those funds can also be used for training on using personal protective equipment as well as sanitization and disinfectant supplies, and for “reasonable transportation costs,” which could include providing meals, and “physical barriers to facilitate social distancing.” Money is also available to support services required by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act and the McKinney-Vento Homeless Education Act. Addition- ally, the Consolidated Appropriations Act provides $4.09 billion to replenish the Governor’s Emergency Education Relief Fund, which covers COVID-19 response.
At the recent STN EXPO Virtual conference in late January, I hosted a discussion on “Technology Adoption in a Pandemic” with Greg Jackson, executive director of transportation and fleet services at Jeffco Public Schools in Colorado. We talked about what Jeffco is doing to adapt to the ever-changing landscape of school startup.
Jackson shared his current school bus acquisition and replacement strategy for the upcoming 2021-2022 school year. He also relayed the considerations he is making when replacing old tech with new tech on his newer school buses. For example, he said that Jeffco is transitioning to a single video security supplier, and over the next five years it is upgrading the entire fleet of 450 school buses to the latest technology available.
He added that getting the district IT department involved in the buying process was crucial. It addressed concerns like security, student information hacking, and compliance. Those networking professionals made a valuable contribution by identifying the best suppliers and products that Jeffco should be working with during the RFP process.
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I specifically asked Jackson how Jeffco is taking advantage of the federal resources and accessing reimbursements for COVID-19 and safety solutions. He shared that he is considering air filtration technology, student tracking/tracing, PPE, and cleaning/disinfecting technologies.
“This new relief proposal is a gamechanger, if it passes,” Jackson commented, adding that these funds would ensure a strong and stable budget going into next school year.
As an industry, we should anticipate many changes in the coming months, but one thing has become clearly apparent to me. There is light at the end of the tunnel. With change comes fear and anxiety but we can overcome this strife. As positive new behaviors and norms are established, they will define our industry for years to come.
I’m looking forward to getting back to the business of transporting kids to schools safely in 2021. I hope you are ready to do the same.
Editor’s Note: As reprinted in the February 2021 issue of School Transportation News.