Besides its standard function of school bus mapping for home-to-school routes, software is now being utilized to more efficiently deliver meals to students amid mass school closures nationwide, in response to the coronavirus.
Many school districts have emergency preparedness plans for earthquakes, hurricanes, school shootings and other incidents that have caused mass casualties, injuries or major disruptions to communities. However, very few, if any, were prepared for the event of a pandemic.
The impact of COVID-19, or the coronavirus, is being felt all across North America and on a global scale. Most school districts nationwide closed their doors until further notice, mostly by order of the state governor.
Due to these school closures, many economically disadvantaged students no longer have regular access to free and reduced breakfast and lunch that are provided at school. School administrators and transportation directors had to quickly think on their feet and utilize the tools that were already available to them, namely their school buses and transportation staff, in order to meet the changing needs of their students.
“Many students across the country are depending on the school district for a healthy meal, breakfast and lunch,” said Antonio Civitella, CEO of Transfinder Corp., a logistics software company that specializes in school bus routing and management. “Our clients have evolved. The main concept of picking up a student at a safe stop and bringing them to school and back home, they have had years to perfect that. … But now, how do we bring food, how do we provide a region? Maybe it can’t be door to door, but how do we provide food back to [the students]?”
Civitella said Transfinder product Routefinder Go, Infofinder i, Viewfinder and Stopfinder are being utilized in ways he imagined.
“There are always going to be those clients that are the early adopters,” Civitella explained. “These are people that recognize there is a problem, and they realize that at their fingertips, I already have a product that could solve some of the issues that I am faced with right now.”
One of those early adopters is Ken Easley, the transportation director at Centralia City School District #135 in Illinois, located East of St. Louis. He said he is running his morning routes each day to deliver meals. His team is providing the current day’s lunch and the next day’s breakfast.
To accomplish this, he said he used Transfinder to copy his current data set and save it as an entirely new route set. This allows him to alter the data to meet the bus times. He added that students are comfortable and familiar with their bus stops, so his district is running the same routes it normally would. But the frequency had to be reduced to once a day.
Easley said added that now the district has opened up the meal delivery to every student, not only those who attend the school district.
“Even if somebody is staying with grandma, and they are not really from our district if they show up at one of our stops, we don’t turn any child away,” Easley said.
Cody Cox, the director of transportation and maintenance at Community ISD, located outside of Dallas in Collin County, is another example of a student transporter who is utilizing Transfinder products differently. Initially, he said his team broke the district areas up into sectors, using Routefinder. However, staff soon realized that there was a greater need for food throughout than district than initially thought. Now, Community ISD ensures that every child under the age of 18 who lives within the district has access to meals.
“For Transfinder, you put your schools in there and tell it what time school starts, so then it routes backward and makes sure the bus gets there on time,” Cox said. “So, we just did the same thing, but we put the time that we want breakfast and lunch to be over with. We just kind of manipulated the system a little bit.”
Cox explained that he combined all of the district’s general and special education routes to those stops for food delivery. The new routes are also delivering homework packets to the students who don’t have internet access. He said he was able to reroute the whole district in about six hours.
“As parents call in, my routers are adding those bus stops in for food delivery,” Cox said. “For instance, they may be staying with grandma, and they have never stayed with grandma before. As far as the routing program is concerned, we don’t have a bus stop at grandma’s house. And so now, we are having to add these bus stops in.”
Cox said he attempts to ensure the school buses are driving into every neighborhood throughout the district so that every student is getting the meals, if they want them, instead of only stopping at cluster stops, which he said some districts are doing. He added that his drivers run two routes, a morning route for breakfast and an afternoon route for lunch. He added that they are close to serving 1,700 meals a day.
“What happens is, the parents miss the bus stops, and they call into transportation and dispatch radios that bus and that bus goes back by to that neighborhood to serve that child,” Cox explained. “We are not being [sticklers] about it, if you call and say that you miss the bus, we will whip around and come back by your house.”
With all the changes, Cox said his parents are utilizing Infofinder i from Transfinder, which allows parents to see the bus stop information. Meanwhile, Transfinder is offering Stopfinder, a two-way communication system, free of charge to all clients and nonclients nationwide.
“If you are a parent in the district, you can look up what time the bus will be by your house for breakfast and what time it will be by your house for lunch, through our normal system to look up bus routes,” Cox said. “When we first launched this, which was [March 16] … we had over 1,500 hits to that site [in less than 24 hours] looking up where the bus will be for breakfast and lunch … So that told me they were using it.”
Civitella explained the product further, “Infofinder i is a web product that parents can go into, type in their address, school grade and it will tell them this is your stop. [Two] weeks ago, that meant, this is where the bus is picking your son or daughter up, today that means where the food will be delivered.”
Cox also said his drivers are being paid their normal wages, despite how many hours they might work. For instance, a driver who normally works eight hours a day is in actuality only working about four or five delivering meals, currently. But they are still getting paid for a full eight hours.
Another step Cox took was ensuring his school bus drivers and students he serves are safe and healthy during this time. He said no one can come onto district property without wearing a mask and gloves. When school bus drivers report for work, they walk through the door and stand on an “X” to stay six feet apart from one another.
He said a registered nurse then takes the temperature of every bus driver and asks them health-related questions recommended by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. For instance, have they recently been anywhere other than home and work? Once the drivers are cleared, they get the receive their keys, clock in and proceed directly to their assigned school bus.
“What a lot of people are forgetting, and I keep trying to tell them, is that they are just having bus drivers hop on buses,” Cox said. “Well, you need to have them checked out, make sure they are not spreading something. You also need to have them [separated.] Bus drivers like to stay in groups and gossip. Well, that is a bad thing for the coronavirus.”
Cox explained that the procedure is designed to limit the spread of the virus if one of his staff becomes sick. Then, he doesn’t have to shut down the whole department. Instead, he will only need to send that school bus driver and the monitor home.
He said the plan also tries to keep the students and families safe. If one of the families was to be infected with the coronavirus, a mitigation plan already developed would use a food services van and deliver meals only to that household.
“We know who is in that household. We already have one in that situation. We know how many kids are in that household, and we don’t want to get exposed to them, so we have them wave through the window, and then we drop the meals off at their door and drive off,” Cox said. “That keeps them away from the bus stop, and it keeps the workers safe.”
Cox explained that the one family currently receiving meals this way does not have COVID-19, but instead the household consists of members who have an amino acid deficiency, and they need to remain isolated from others.
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When School Transportation News asked Civitella what he thought about districts using his software in these ways, he said he is honored and impressed.
“People out there are thinking on their feet, it was encouraging,” Civitella said. “We believe that at Transfinder we are nimble, We believe that we do think on our feet. We act fast, We can as a small company, we are able to do that. So, when I saw that happening … it was encouraging, it really was. It was also a humbling feeling.”