Over a year of COVID-19 has brought rapid transformations to health, safety and efficiency in all sectors, including the pupil transportation field, some of which are primed to stay after the pandemic ends.
Routing was one area heavily affected, revealed an STN EXPO Indianapolis Town Hall sponsored by First Student on Oct. 4. The districts who are most successful with routing changes have sufficient data and know which students ride which buses and when, explained consultant and session facilitator Derek Graham.
Panelist LaShone Mosley, director of transportation for Des Moines (Iowa) Public Schools, shared that one change that may turn out to be permanent is frequent school bus cleaning because it is important to keep drivers safe as well as students. Another innovation she said she continues to use is an electronic process for drivers to bid on routes.
Seating charts at Hamilton Southeastern Schools in Indiana prove useful for not only contact tracing, but for athletic coaches and for emergency personal in the event of a crash, said panelist Director of Transportation Zack McKinney.
Meanwhile, Director of Transportation Nathan Oliver commented on the panel that Indiana’s Monroe County School Corporation (MCSC) did not previously have assigned seating. It took COVID-19 to improve that process, and he confirmed that creating bus ridership lists has been beneficial from a safety standpoint.
He also began conducting driver training online due to concerns of the spread of COVID-19, and it’s been an improvement in both information distribution and convenience for his drivers. Though, he shared that he had to consider the age and technological savvy of various drivers, some of whom needed more support.
When schools closed, McKinney added that he had to give drivers online training classes to complete, which proved beneficial and will continue. Oliver paid his drivers while students were home to retain them and said that online training will likely be assigned in the future. Mosely noted that she gives drivers other tasks such as food delivery.
Several session participants confirmed that the transportation departments at their districts have been heavily involved in delivering food to students. While many shared this started during COVID-19, they are looking to continue supporting students in this way.
Mosley and Oliver shared that their districts did not have bus Wi-Fi hotspots but partnered with local Internet service providers to provide students with broadband routers to take home. MCSC also delivered the hotspots and set up mobile libraries.
“It’s amazing what you can accomplish when you really need to,” commented Graham.
Several attendees shared that route consolidation during COVID-19 led to their department continuing to cut routes.
Some districts reported success with driver training. However, they had to be careful to make sure drivers were completing the training and using their hours correctly so they weren’t being paid for work they didn’t do.
COVID-19 has also resulted in fewer students on the bus in general, since parents are driving them or sending them to school via Safe Routes to School walking routes. Some districts tried staggering parent arrival and drop-off times, but are still running into traffic issues.
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Vaccine mandates being such a hot topic across the country, school staff are not exempt from the conversation. Des Moines simply made the vaccine available to staff, while an Oregon Head Start leader shared that it was mandatory at her district. Hamilton Southeastern Schools made vaccination a choice, though recipients were given a $1,000 stipend.
Mosley shared that Des Moines got creative with its routing and breakfast service schedule to help assuage the driver shortage. She and McKinney are encouraging other staff members like coaches to be trained to drive routes or sports trips if a regular school bus driver isn’t available.
Oliver related that the low $12 per hour pay rate is an important issue that needs attention, since it leads to drivers not prioritizing routes and thus leaving the district lacking. One attendee said athletics takes only the necessary players on a team or tries to transport players going to roughly the same location on the same bus, so that fewer vehicles and drivers are needed.