Matthew W. Daus, Esq., transportation technology chair at the City University of New York’s (CUNY) Transportation Research Center of The City College of New York, discussed a topic on student transport’s mind as they interpret all the guidance and information available regarding transportation amid COVID-19.
For example, what happens if a school district can’t or doesn’t want to adhere to the recommendations?
Daus, who is also the founder of the transportation practice group at law firm Windels Marx, said various federal, state or local information might be prefaced with the words “recommendation” or “guidance,” but he advised that student transporters take it as a mandate. Those who choose not to comply, he added, could open themselves and their operations to a negligence lawsuit.
He said for student transportation in a COVID-19 world, a school district or bus company needs to make sure they are abiding by the recommendations, whether that be social distancing, staggered bell times to ensure reduced capacity, cleaning protocols or even temperature checks. And, he said, no matter if the guidance changes from day to day.
Guidance from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration should all be considered, Daus said, along with orders from governors, local officials, and superintendents.
However, also keeping a clear record of the data is vital, especially if a lawsuit was to ever arise. He advised districts that don’t already have a back-to-school transportation plan to develop one.
Daus said the development and eventual availability of a COVID-19 vaccine remains a mystery. But he said he foresees many of these requirements that better improve public health and safety are going to remain in place for quite some time.
Currently, Daus said he is tracking private party lawsuits for not following guidance and keeping students safe that are resulting in government fines and penalties. He noted that he also anticipates these numbers to rise, not only in the educational settings but also in other sectors.
For instance, a parent could sue a school district because social distancing was not adhered to perfectly on a school bus, and a student passenger contracted the virus and then passed it on an older family member, who later died.
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Another aspect of this new normal is student confidentiality and the protection of health information. He said technologies exist that help school districts track this information and better protect it. School districts should be aware of the Family Educational Rights & Privacy Act (FERPA), the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) and the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA).
Daus said technology also helps mitigate risk and makes the school bus safer for students but school districts must make sure that technology use doesn’t violate these privacy laws, though he pointed out that local emergency exemptions do exist for FERPA and HIPPA, in some cases.
There could also be risks to manually keeping records especially terms of cleaning, if the data was ever needed in a court setting. Yet, Daus said, having software but not employing staff who know how to work with it or who are using it in the wrong ways carries a similar risk. Even once COVID-19 passes, proper record keeping will continue to be the key to mitigating risk and liability, as well as keeping students and staff safe.
Another aspect of technology is data security and ensuring security from hackers or attacks. Daus advised listeners to ask the vendors questions regarding data security as even though technology is important right now, confirming it works, that the agreement between the provider and the school district is confirmed and that the provider assumes that liability for when things like an attack or hack should occur remain paramount.
The Future of Technology
Daus said because many technology solutions are relativity new, engaging with district IT departments is a good first step to take. He also advised districts to ensure the software they’re buying also works with other software school districts already have, and the integration process is smooth.
One change during this time might be the adoption of more alternative transportation vehicles, as it might be necessary to integrate different vehicle sizes into the fleet to ensure social distancing practices.
He said instead of saying “school bus transportation,” he advised listeners to use the term “pupil transportation as a service,” especially in terms of new technology adoption and the use of other non-school-bus modes to complement service. Transportation officials need to be looking for new ways to transport students safely and what technology solutions will help that goal be accomplished.
The last point he touched on was training. Daus said in this day and age, every school district needs a health and safety director, or at least needs to designate someone on staff to fill this role. He noted that it’s not a luxury having that person on staff, it’s a necessity.
Daus concluded by saying even though technology is being adopted at school districts, if employees don’t know how it work it, or if it’s not being used properly it won’t help.