School bus drivers are at a premium like never before, and finding ways to make one’s transportation routes more efficient to keep drivers happy is a top priority for transportation directors going into the new school year.
One way to ensure efficient routing is by pinpointing exactly what students need transportation services and routing specifically for those students. This is what Bethlehem Central School District in New York has implemented.
Director of Transportation Karim Johnson explained that shortly after arriving at the school district last December, he realized that the electronic bus student registration process he had developed while at his previous employer — Colleton County School District in Walterboro, South Carolina — could be applied in Bethlehem to address the driver shortage
“At Colleton in the 2017-2018 school year, we were 20 drivers short. With the electronic bus student registration process and routing software implementation/integration, we ended up being plus five drivers in March 2020, before school closed for the pandemic,” Johnson recalled.
Johnson hopes to accomplish a similar goal at Bethlehem. He and Jeff Wainwright, director of transportation at nearby Saratoga Springs City School District, are hoping to leverage their student information system and routing software integration with the data collected through a bus student registration process to identify and create bus routes for confirmed ridership.
“More accurate data will help us match the number of bus routes to the anticipated number of drivers returning for 2021-2022 school year without sacrificing service,” Johnson explained, adding that he currently has a fleet of 130 buses but ran around 87 routes prior to COVID-19.
Before this school year, Bethlehem relied on its traditional approach of routing to accommodate every child at the district, regardless of if they were riding the bus or not.
Now, Johnson said he’s confident he can build enough efficiency into the system to run about 65 routes, about the same number of drivers he expects to have on staff. Johnson added his total district enrollment is at about 4,500 students.
“Right now, we’re somewhere around 22 percent down from the 87 drivers we had pre-pandemic,” Johnson said while speaking of the driver shortage. “We’re probably hovering somewhere around 68 or 69 drivers. The goal is to try to get an accurate feel of who’s going to be riding the school bus and when so we can meet the transportation needs of students with the number of drivers we will have. That’s bottom line what we’re trying to do.”
Johnson explained parents can access the student information system and mark whether their child needs transportation. This information is then transferred nightly to the Tyler Technologies Versatrans RP suite. This is different than his experience at Colleton County, as bus registration was done at the school level, and a data specialist logged that information into the student information system.
“The parents are actually interacting directly by going to the bus registration portal within the student information system. Once there, they can indicate if they want morning school bus transportation or afternoon school bus transportation,” Johnson said of the system put in place at Bethlehem.
Should a family’s circumstances change, he added the system also allows for changes throughout the school year.
“Our goal is to get more refined data for our students and then design routes accordingly, which will reduce the number of bus routes that we need, and reduce the number of drivers,” Johnson said, noting that the district has had Tyler Versatrans since it was first released.
Meanwhile, Wainwright at Saratoga Springs isn’t yet using the Tyler Technologies software to allow for student enrollment, though he said he hopes to be in the future. Instead, the district sent surveys to parents then followed up with emails and phone calls to determine ridership numbers. Wainwright shared that 85 to 90 percent of parents have responded.
“Unfortunately, most of them said they wanted the school bus and I think there’s a fear out there still that they want to have that option, they want to have that ability to be able to just put their child on a bus if they need to,” Wainwright explained. “So, we kind of figured that would happen the first year, especially with our elementary schools. In our high school where more students drive, we have quite a few that have said ‘no’ they don’t want transportation. And that’s one of the key areas that we were looking at was our high school buses because last year we had so many students who said they wanted buses and they didn’t really ride, so we would be running buses with [between five and 10 students.]”
Saratoga Springs is using Tyler Drive tablets as well RFID cards to track when students board the bus. He said he hopes to integrate Tyler’s technology solutions to eventually help with the enrollment process as well.
The district currently has 6,400 students who are eligible for transportation services. It runs about 330 to 340 routes, with each driver doing three to four runs per day.
“And you know we have a driver shortage like everybody else does, so that’s why we started looking at doing this student enrollment project,” Wainwright said. “Right now, we’re probably about eight drivers short for permanent drivers, and we’re also down, probably about 50 percent on our substitute drivers.”
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Normally, the district has around 86 permanent drivers, but with the driver shortage, the list is down to 78.
“I think there’s a lot of factors that are going to be considered into the driver shortage and I don’t think anybody has the magic bullet with how to fix it,” Wainwright said. “I think that driver pay is part of it, along with our current COVID-19 situation.”
He added that unemployment benefits are also hindering people from returning to work as some people are getting more money by staying home.
“It’s a job that demands a lot of responsibility, and there’s a lot of requirements to fill the school bus driving position,” Wainwright added. “It’s no longer just a driving job where you just get behind the wheel and drive, there’s a lot of a lot of requirements, a lot of responsibility, and a lot of training that has to go into it.”
He said he hopes the student enrollment system that they have fully implemented for the first time this year will help decrease the number of routes needed and make the district’s transportation department more efficient.
“The reason we’re doing it is that… last year during COVID-19 one of the things that we did was poll our parents to see how many of them wanted their students riding buses if they were going to be enrolled in school and not doing virtual learning — so in other words if they were going to actually be in school in-person,” Wainwright explained. “We provided the option if they wanted to have a bus or not have a bus, and approximately 40 percent of our parents whose students were going to be in-person learning for that school year said that they did not want school buses, which allowed us to better socially distance our students on the buses.
“So, we used that as our guideline to move forward with doing this on a more regular basis. The one thing we had to be careful of is to make sure that parents understood that they were not waiving the right to transportation,” Wainwright continued. “We were no way wanting parents to waive the right, we just wanted to run our buses more efficiently, and be able to operate buses just for the students who plan on riding the buses.”
Editor’s note — A previous version of this article incorrectly referred to the Versatrans RP solution for school us routing and planning.