Knowing what students are on board school buses and ensuring proper indoor air quality remains high on the priority list for school districts. Marietta City Schools in Georgia realized these necessities and acted on them.
The school district utilized Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act funds awarded to Cobb County near Atlanta to install ionization units and student RIFD card readers, to increase bus cleaning and student accountability, respectively. Director of Transportation Kimberly Ellis said the 9,000-student district immediately responded to the pandemic last year by purchasing technology that ensured both student and staff safety.
Ellis said ionization units from Custom Mobility, which are installed within HVAC filters in heaters and air conditioning units, were initially installed in all classrooms and throughout school buildings. The technology releases an electric charge to create a plasma-filled field with a high concentration of positive and negative ions. Essentially, Ellis said the units kill 99 percent of the production rate, at least in the lab tests, of the SARS-Cov-2 virus in the air.
The district used $78,565 in CARES Act money to purchase and install the technology in about 70 routes buses in December.
“We thought what a great investment because it’s not just the pandemic,” Ellis said. “Kids are going to ride the school bus with colds and strep throat and ear infections. That is not going to go away, so we’ll be able to use this way after the pandemic ends because it helps kills most viruses and bacteria. We’re really excited about it.”
She added that in addition to the ionization units, students are required to wear masks, and buses are wiped down in between runs and fogged each night. Though she added, windows are still kept cracked open during transport, the ionization units provide an extra push of clean air throughout the vehicles.
Additional technology the district was focused on installing amid the pandemic was RIFD cards, as they can be used for contact tracing, which cost MCS $28,100 of CARES Act funds.
Ellis said every bus is equipped with a tablet and MCS offers parents an app through Tyler Technologies’ routing software, Traversa Ride 360. “Our parents can trace the buses to see where they are at,” Ellis said. “They know when the bus is going to arrive.”
However, because the technology is so advanced, she added that MCS wanted to take advantage of every opportunity they could. “It wasn’t enough for a parent just to know that the bus was approaching, they wanted to know, hey, did my student get on the bus or did they get off the bus or did they get on at the right stop or off at the right stop,” she said.
Therefore, the RFID cards are able to provide that parent peace of mind, Ellis explained. She said the cards themselves don’t have GPS, and it doesn’t follow students after they get off the bus. Instead, she said a recorded timestamp indicates when the student entered and exited the bus. It also pushes notifications to the parents.
“If you’re at work and you’ve got a fourth grader that just got off the bus, it’ll let you know that they just got off at Apple Street at 3:23 p.m.,” Ellis provided an example. “So that they know that in the next two or three minutes the student should be walking in their door.”
She said that all students in grades K-12 have received RIFD cards and MCS is working to integrate the cards to be a district-wide solution. Ellis said this means that students will hopefully be able to use their cards to check out books, Chromebooks or laptops. The barcode on the back is linked to the student’s ID number, she explained.
She added that for students in grades K-8, the district attached the RFID cards to their backpacks. Older students were provided the cards on a lanyard.
“It was a good districtwide solution for lots of reasons, not just for transportation,” Ellis said, adding that the cards are from Synovia/CalAmp, with the card readers provided by CI Solutions. “So, we were really excited when we found out it was going to work.”
Ellis continued, “We can run a report and it will tell us all the students that rode that morning or rode that afternoon, and we can narrow it down to a specific time, or a specific day or even just a specific route. Let’s say our high school route, if we got a phone call from the school and say we had somebody test positive, we would be able to provide a list within a few minutes of the students who rode that bus route, so that we could determine who the close contacts were.”
In addition, the district also implemented assigned seating and seating charts for every run on every route.
“I don’t know that the district has even traced one [positive cases] back to transportation,” Ellis said. “We’re really excited about that.”
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MCS has also benefitted by remaining fully staffed with school bus drivers.
“I know that there are districts that are hurting for drivers everywhere right this minute, but we feel really blessed. We’re full, so that’s a great place to be, and I feel part of the reason that is, is because [transportation has] done everything they can possibly do to make our employees feel like we care about their safety,” she shared. “And because of that, people want to come work here because they feel valued and appreciated and they feel safe. And so, just with the tremendous number of resources that the district has thrown at that, not just to our employees but to our families. They’ve got shields up in all the classrooms and they have individual dividers and have just done almost everything you can think of [plus] some things that are just completely outside of the box to make our students and our families and our employees safe.”
She added that the district has also partnered with a local pharmacy and all employees were offered their first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine this month.