Hope, honesty and being prepared to hunker down when needed are the three “H’s” that Dr. Stephen Sroka shared during the opening of a free webinar presented on March 30. The live event, hosted by School Transportation News, featured a panel of experts that discussed the impact of the coronavirus outbreak on student transportation operations.
Sroka, who was added last week to the STN EXPO Indianapolis schedule as a keynote speaker, explained that the pandemic is fueled by both fears and facts. He added that while one person has the power to help stop COVID-19 from spreading, it takes the power of many to flatten the curve of the coronavirus outbreak.
Joining together in a time of crisis and trusting one another is a common theme of student transportation.
Sroka noted that a transportation department is the deliverer of community hope. That hope now comes in the form of delivered meals or instructional materials, or perhaps in a friendly and familiar face driving around the neighborhood.
However, as people are encouraged to stay inside to reduce the effects of the coronavirus, one’s mental health could begin to deteriorate.
Texas school psychologist and consultant Dr. Adam Saenz discussed the impact this virus could have on mental health. He said anxiety is a normal response when trying to cope with a new challenging situation that provides more questions than answers.
He noted that the physical symptoms of the virus are shared, however, he said there is another impact that people experience, one that impacts the nervous systems.
Saenz discussed the sympathetic nervous system, or the human fight or flight response, and the parasympathetic nervous system, or rest and digest. He said we all need to be aware of the changes that both systems are activating in our brains and how they are impacting our bodies.
There are several ways to cope with the world around us, Saenz observed. When it comes to fight or flight, people have the ability to choose how they are going to react, and if that response is helpful or hurtful. He advised that the excess energy that results from staying at home during school closures and government orders should be redirected into such activities as yoga or exercising.
On Sunday, President Donald Trump announced an extension of the social distancing guidelines until April 30, and on Tuesday the White House Coronavirus Taskforce discussed how communities can come together during this crisis and change the course of the pandemic, which in return will save lives.
Regarding the parasympathetic nervous system, Saenz said people need to get to a place of relaxation, whether that be lying down in bed, breathing in peace, or even watching a limited amount of mindless TV that does not add to anxiety. He added that when engaged in rest and digest, our body reboots, recovers, heals and restores itself.
The Effect on Student Transportation Operations
Steve Miller, director of human resources for Chicagoland based contractor Cook-Illinois Corporation, discussed the importance of keeping employees healthy and connected during a crisis.
Miller commented that it’s important for employers to get in front of these types of crisis situations and create a sense of community for its staff. He noted that no one has all the answers, but everyone is in this together. He advised districts, companies and managers to continue to keep employees apprised of information as it’s received.
Miller said social media can play a positive role, but it also presents a challenge with all the information circling the web. He noted that social media could serve as a double-edged sword. He said to use the media in a positive way to push out health tips, workouts to do at home and recipes for healthy meals to employees.
He advised to try and take wellness programs online and engage employees that way. Miller said the most important thing is staying connected and getting information out to the staff.
Saenz noted that using technology to share activities is a good idea but could be subjective. He said that individuals need to find the program that is right for them. He suggested searching YouTube and listening to several different yoga instructors, for example, before choosing an approach that works for the individual.
Industry consultant Ryan Hahn, a former district transportation director in Oregon, also discussed a number of strategies for staying connected with employees during school closures.
Transportation is family-oriented at its core, he commented. No matter how big the crisis, student transporters come together and strengthen bonds despite the appearance of the world around them being in disarray, he added. Student transporters pull together, perform and deliver services.
Throughout the coronavirus outbreak, he said transportation departments cannot fear technology. Instead. they can use the tools to stay connected and to keep each other informed. He provided several strategies for continuing to engage staff:
- Set up virtual check-ins with drivers and staff. People are looking for normal, maybe the new normal, and need a sense of familiarity.
- Engage school principals, administrators and other officials who interact daily with bus drivers on conference calls.
- Provide updates to staff regularly, either by phone, emails or even traditional mailed letters. People are hungry for information.
- Solicit employees for feedback and keep up employee recognition. Give out bus cleanliness awards or recognize an employee of the month. Remind people of their value.
- Publish regular print or email newsletters.
- Address new department goals and engage employees. Ask staff for ideas.
- Be the voice of calm and creativity during a crisis, and be a compassionate soundboard during a time of fear.
- Take time to update the driver handbook or credentials.
- Use resources to engage in online professional development. [Editor’s Note: STN has an archive of webinars that some school districts are using as professional development materials.]
Hahn also advised that there can be great value in building rapport and relationships during a time of crisis. He said people are in a different state of mind right now, and they need to bond through positive albeit appropriately distanced interactions with other people.
Going Forward Toward the New Normal
As the economy plummets, transportation directors can take advantage of the upcoming recession to attract more school bus drivers for the next school year. Julius Ceaser, director of recruiting for Cook-Illinois Corporation, discussed several ways to continue advertising and employee retention practices during the pandemic.
He advised that companies and school districts should use this time to keep their names in front of those who are seeking work. As the economy transitions, many people across the nation are going to investigate career changes. He said that using online platforms is going to be very effective.
Ceaser advocated for the continuation of online ad campaigns, especially on social media platforms. He said Cook-Illinois was in the middle of the hiring process for potential employees when COVID-19 hit, so the company had to temporarily halt the hiring process. Ceaser said organizations should maintain a list of viable candidates.
While conducting in-depth interviews isn’t feasible right now, he commented that companies and districts can encourage online recruiting via their current employees. Ceaser suggested that organizations can encourage employees to post fun things that have occurred in their offices in the past, as a way of recruiting new applicants.
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The most important thing, however, is to continue to build the relationships with the employees already in the fold, Ceaser said. Take time out of your day to reach out to them often and see if there is anything you can offer. Show employees that you care about them.
He also advised companies and districts to engage employees throughout the summer. Once the social distancing ban is lifted, he said organizations could hold events and bring employees and their families out for different non-work-related yet team-building activities.
What Can Transportation Departments Do Now?
School bus drivers are the face of the community, and as the industry proceeds through an uncertain time, districts and companies should continue to use their school bus drivers to demonstrate familiarity throughout the community. The experts discussed decorating school buses and driving them through neighborhoods, for example, to show students and families that you are thinking about them.
Another idea is setting up a Facebook page as an open forum to converse with one another and to share ideas across the community. This allows transportation employees to share information and build that continued sense of community to those in surrounding neighborhoods.
Saenz said there is a part of society that is thinking about getting back to normal. But he said not to dwell on that. Instead, appreciate the additional time you now have to tell people around you that you love them.
He explained that writing on a piece paper, ‘I don’t want to die, but if I do, I want you to know that…’ is an impactful, loving exercise that could only take three minutes to accomplish.
Saenz said that right now we all have the gift of life, and we should take this opportunity to stop and smell the flowers and tell the people around us how much they mean to our lives.
“As we think ahead, let’s be kind, loving and we need to be patient,” Saenz explained. “It could be years before we feel we have settled into a new normal. It’s okay if we don’t feel it right away.”
He advised that we need to be honest as this new world unfolds. He said to learn all we can but go to the right people and the right sources for most the knowledgeable information.
Saenz advised that the best way to help ourselves is to help others. Invest time in families and loved ones. Invest time in relationships and have important conversations.
Before you know it, operations will up and running soon, and you’ll wish you will have this “downtime” back, Saenz explained. He said, don’t look back and wish you would have spent this time differently.
Sroka agreed, advising to build on the three “F’s,” those being families, friends and faith.