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STARTS Task Force Releases Toolkit to Help Restart School Bus Operations

The long-awaited report from the Student Transportation Aligned for Return To School (STARTS) Task Force was released on Friday and provides school districts with a comprehensive planning tool that allows them to evaluate the district’s educational schedule, route schedule and local geography, as it permits to each individual transportation reopening plan.

It is a joint endeavor from the three national associations — the National Association for Pupil Transportation (NAPT), National Association of State Directors of Pupil Transportation Services (NASDPTS), and National School Transportation Association (NSTA). The Task Force formed in May as student transporters seek answers to many questions regarding school startup amid COVID-19.

In a webinar on Friday, the three association executive directors, Mike Martin (NAPT), Charlie Hood (NASDPTS) and Curt Macysyn (NSTA), discussed the importance and goal of the report, “Guidelines, Tactics and Templates: A Reopening Plan Resource for School Transportation Professionals,” which is intended to assist transportation professionals in navigating the challenges ahead.

“People are looking for specific requirements. The task force is not that but a roadmap that pulls together all the different guidelines given by different agencies and provides a matrix of options on what they might mean to school busing,” Charlie Hood, executive director of NASDPTS, commented earlier this week during a Supplier Council meeting. “[It’s a] tool to design local programs based on what state and local government is telling them what they have to do. The task force will provide insights on how to make their decision.”

More than 75 volunteers contributed to the process, and it drew on the considerations developed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as well as state education, health officials and school districts across all 50 states. Jim Regan of Capitalworks Consulting Groups and Tim Ammon with Decision Support group presented the report during the webinar, as they worked as the project managers throughout the five-week developmental process.

The 70-page document provides 27 core guidelines and over 225 tasks to better assist and support transportation departments. It also includes an additional 17 guidelines specifically relating to transporting students with special needs. The document comes as nearly every state in the nation has released reopening guidance for schools, which in some instances includes requirements and/or recommendations for student transportation operations.

The document starts by providing research from school districts and recognizes four learning categories that they are considering for reopening, which include operating normally, the preferred path forward for districts with low local infection rates. Other options are operating a split or blended schedule, a hybrid schedule, or an 80- to 100-percent online learning schedule.

Districts choosing to operate a full or partial remote learning schedule would require little to no transportation for regular education students. However, transportation services for students with special needs would still be required, and a plan for this student population needs to be developed.

Whether or not in-person classes resume and school buses are necessary to transport students, the document states that fixed transportation costs for school districts or bus contactors will continue, and bus drivers need to be at the ready. It states that districts and contractors will need to continue to pay them, or necessary staff and resources to operate transportation as it might not be available when the virus recedes, if they don’t.

The report does not make recommendations regarding controversial topics such as social distancing or temperature checking, as many transportation professionals would have hoped. Instead, it recognizes that school districts and school boards across the U.S. and Canada all operate with three significant differences. These differences include educational schedule, route schedule and local geography, and all should be considered before districts make a task apart of their transportation reopening plan.

Regan said that the task force can only provide opinions to some of those questions as requirements and resources are going to be different everywhere.

Document A produced by the task force, “Master List of Guidelines and Tasks,” lists in a spreadsheet all 27 guidelines and the tasks associated with each. A transportation director or supervisor could use the document as a toolkit for creating their own reopening plans. The guidelines are distinguished as “what to do,” while the tasks provide a “how to do it” approach.

The document lists each task and then provides districts an opportunity to respond to each task by answering the following questions as pertaining to their operation:

  • Student applicability — All students, general education special education
  • Safety impact — Significant, moderate, minimal, none
  • Cost impact — Significant, moderate, minimal
  • Cost requirement considerations — Additional time, additional staff, additional training, additional resources, additional equipment
  • Resources available — Available, scare, not available, TBD
  • Legal, regulatory & contractual requirement considerations — Legislative change, contract change, CBA change, local district policy
  • Special needs requirements considerations — Additional time, additional staff, additional training, additional resources, additional equipment
  • Overall Difficulty to Implement — High, moderate, low

Districts can choose if the task can be considered for the reopening plan and then further compare it to the school educational module, the geography of the school district, and if it’s appropriate in a three-, two- or one-tiered routing system.

“What we see is that the response to COVID-19 is really unique in it is a national problem that is going to have highly localized solutions,” Ammon said, adding that this is why the task force didn’t want to release recommendations but instead guidance that can be adapted into each district’s plan as necessary.

“Jim and I, and the task force have been guided by a single purpose,” he added. “We need to be able to develop materials and to develop tools for the industry to actually use in its preparation for school start 2020 and its response to the COVID-19 virus. Our goal was never to just develop a report, now certainty there is a report there and it’s substantial and it has a tremendous amount of important information in it.”


Related: STARTS Task Force to Provide Guidance for School Transportation Post-COVID-19
Related: National Academies Advises School Districts to Prioritize Full-Time, In-Person Classes
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Related: School Bus Safety Resources


Document B, “Reopening Plan — Gantt Chart,” allows districts to delete the task rows they are not utilizing and assign the remaining tasks to select individuals. This document allows for easy monitoring of the progress of each task by also providing a start and end date.

Both Ammon and Regan discussed how important the Gantt chart could be with districts that contract their transportation services, as districts would be able to manage and track the progress of a contractor’s implementation phases.

The main takeaway from the webinar, however, is that COVID-19 is a fluid situation and requires a fluid document. The task force is prepared to make changes as needed, and additional documents are also being discussed.

Regan noted that in the future, the team is looking to release a readiness checklist as well as standard operating procedures for select districts, as they work with them, that other districts may want to utilize. A Frequently Asked Questions document is also in works, as the associations and Task Force prepare to receive more and more questions.

Ammon noted that everyone is facing consistent challenges, and the entire industry is in this together. He advised everyone to learn from and support each other, and to continue to foster great collaboration.

Editor’s Note: This article has been updated from an original version to provide more detail on the toolkit.

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