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Time for a New Playbook When It Comes to Reopening School

When times are uncertain people tend to do two things: look for some previous event to relate to and seek a swift and painless return to what it was like before the uncertainty set it in.

The two cognitive biases (associative and normalcy biases, respectively) have the potential to cause huge problems for the school transportation industry as we come out of this initial phase of dealing with COVID-19. Why? Because we never have seen anything like this before and it is highly unlikely that what we were experiencing before the virus hit is the place we want to go back to.

As a result, we need a new playbook for how transportation operations can respond to the challenges they are likely to face preparing for the 2020-21 school year (and for those few who have not yet closed down normal school operations, the end of the 2020 school year).

A little history lesson. First, this isn’t analogous to the “Spanish Flu” of 1918. The workforce is not the same. Medical practice is not the same. And, despite some notable exceptions, information transfer is not the same. Second, this is not 2009, 2010 or 2011. The nature of that economic recession is different than the one we will experience. Third, does anyone remember December 2019? All the talk of driver shortages, new demands on transportation, increasing costs, etc. Who wants that again?

These ideas point to the conclusion that this situation is new, and we just can’t go back to the shelf and grab the old plans to solve our current challenges. So how do we prepare ourselves?

Setting the Game Plan

The first step in addressing uncertainty is to acknowledge that we don’t know everything we would want to or might even need to know, but we do know a lot about what we have available to us and we can build from that. Start by thinking about your overall systems and approach to designing transportation for the new year. What do you know? What do you need to know? What are you unlikely to know, and what will likely change? All of these are key considerations to successfully designing an approach that will allow you to support your district, regardless of how educational practices change.

Transportation managers are often reluctant to put themselves in the middle of administrations. However, in this environment you need to get very close to curriculum managers, superintendents and school staff because the sooner you know how they intend to respond, the sooner you can build your plan. Things to consider include:

  • Will you have to redesign bus stop locations to have 10 or fewer kids adhere to social distancing requirements?
  • Will you have to redesign routes because capacity use will be restricted?
  • Will you have to redesign routes because you are going to half-day or alternative-day schooling?
  • Does your routing software have the capacity to support this?
  • How will this impact the driver time, the number of drivers you need and the cost?
  • How will this impact your maintenance schedules?
  • Do you have enough dispatchers?

There are a million questions to be asked and answered, but it starts with asking, “How much transportation do you want us to provide?” Answering this key question should set the strategy for your approach to designing a school start plan.

Half-Time adjustments

One thing to be sure of is that you will make some predictions and they will be wrong. You can address this by establishing defined points in your planning process, where you are reviewing both the assumptions you made and the ideas you came up with. Establishing these regular checkpoints will let you course-correct much sooner than if you charge forth with a plan and realize in August you are going to every other day for school.

I recommend that you formally document the assumptions you make so there is no confusion about them and that you build in weekly reviews of those assumptions, until they become knowns in the planning process. After that, I would still build in bi-weekly checks to be sure you are tracking to a successful school start.

Calling Audibles

Even if you build a great plan and make disciplined adjustments over the summer, when school starts things will not go as planned. Kindergarten registrations will be late, parents won’t let you know they moved, and some drivers are likely to not show up. As a result, you need to build flexibility and resiliency into your operation. But how?

  • Don’t plan to 100 percent of everything. Efficiency can be the enemy of flexibility, and in times of uncertainty, flexibility wins. Be sure to leave enough slack in your routing and in your staffing to respond to events on the ground.
  • Build systems, not rules. Many of us want to create procedures that dictate everything we are supposed to do and when we are supposed to it. That doesn’t work when we don’t know important things we need to. As a result, create structures that provide guidance on what you expect outcomes to be and allow the practices to evolve in response to events.
  • Over-communicate. People will often assume the worst when there is a lack of clarity or certainty. If you have to make changes or are making changes, allow all your stakeholders to know what you are doing, why you are doing it, and when you expect it to be completed. This may get you into trouble sometimes because you are likely to be wrong occasionally. But your employees and stakeholders will appreciate that more than not being told what is happening.

tim ammon picThe upcoming school year will be a time for student transportation professionals to demonstrate their expertise and their ability to be the key player in the educational system that they are. The ability to do this will take preparation, clear-eyed decision making, and flexibility. There is no time to waste so let’s get started.


Tim Ammon is co-owner of Decision Support Group, a New Jersey-based consultant that helps school districts and private sector companies solve organizational and operational challenges. He may be contacted at tammon@decisionsupportgroup.com or 800-994-0483.

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