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Winning the Race of Technology Strategy

In a normal year, our team at STN comes out of summer on a high. We would have produced three national conferences and put to bed over three-quarters of the year’s print and digital magazine editions. We would emerge from Labor Day weekend with our sights set on the straightaway of publishing the final monthly magazine issues and annual Buyer’s Guide.

But there rarely is a true finish line, instead only new challenges to tackle. This year, COVID-19 has proven to be a nightmare of an opponent. Not knowing what tomorrow holds can be paralyzing. But we all must keep moving forward. As I wrote in the April issue, amid the full reality of the new novel coronavirus taking a hold of us all, opportunities and possibilities are revealing themselves. It’s up to us as individuals and organizations to do something positive with them.

Meanwhile, adding to the insanity of the current situation, the stock market keeps climbing. Unemployment remains high, at least compared to what society grew accustomed to over the past year, with many jobs never coming back. Still, the innovations keep coming.

Realistically there may still be many months between now and a vaccine, but its development will be the fastest in history. Then, there’s technology, which has rapidly evolved in a matter of a few short months to meet all the challenges. It has certainly served as a catalyst for change in school bus transportation.

Yesterday’s use case for student tracking showed where and when students board and exit the bus, and perhaps targeted Medicare funding streams for qualifying students with disabilities. Now it’s being used for contact tracing in the event of a COVID-19 outbreak. Video cameras are emerging as a thermal imaging tool to take temperatures. The pre- and post-trip inspections now include cleaning verification. Air purification systems are available as alternatives to opening windows for ventilation.

All are great opportunities, surely. But as the saying goes, with great power comes great responsibility. Technology today comes with just as many questions yet far fewer answers, similar to what we’re experiencing with the health crisis. As much as we want one, there is no “easy button” to press.

Student transportation leaders can both embrace new technology and scrutinize its effects. Now more than ever it is vital to ensure that solving one challenge doesn’t create numerous others. For example, when preparing to take students’ temperatures at bus stops, what must transportation officials know to adhere to HIPAA regulations? What type of new collaboration is necessary?

Then there is the issue of data security, which has been a grey area for years. More information flows back and forth, to and from buses today than ever before. How can student transporters work with their school administrations and vendor partners to better protect existing data, as well as all the new data COVID-19, is creating?

Technology can be as scary and anxiety-inducing as COVID-19. Developing a plan that outlines the advantages and goals of using technology while also identifying many potential consequences is a start. But perhaps it’s time for us all to also start thinking more like system engineers and take a soup to nuts approach.

Life cycle planning means more than calculating the useful years left in a school bus, equipment or software and the costs of operating them. In software engineering, life cycle is the organized collection of all activities, relationships and contracts of a business or operation. IEEE, one of the world’s leading professional technical organizations, says it’s the evolution of a system, product, service or project from conception to retirement.

Technology helps us execute, and there are many services and products now available or coming soon to address today’s and tomorrow’s needs. It is the brain trust at school districts and bus companies that must analyze if that technology is the best fit under various operational and geographical conditions. Efficiency and cost-savings have never been more important. Ultimately, however, the bottom line remains the safety and security of the students and transportation staff, especially today. Achieving such has always required the industry to keep moving forward, even if that hasn’t always been at a rate some would like.

No, slow and steady doesn’t always win the race. But who’s to say, even with a sense of urgency, that deliberate and calculated can’t?

Editor’s Note: As reprinted from the September issue of School Transportation News.

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