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Tracking COVID-19’s Impact on School Transportation, Technology’s Role in Recovery

RENO, Nev. – A panel of transportation professionals reviewed changes in their operations caused by COVID-19 and discussed the ever-evolving technology marketplace and trends they look toward when making decisions for their operations, the students and families served, and their department’s bottom line.

Panel facilitator and STN President Tony Corpin began the Wednesday general session by acknowledging the catastrophic role that COVID-19 continues to play on transportation operations but added that he was seeking positive news. “What’s going well in your operations, and how has technology helped?” he asked.

Greg Jackson, executive director of transportation and fleet services at Jeffco Public Schools in Colorado, reported that operational slowdowns caused by COVID-19 freed up some money that he used to purchase new technology, including onboard bus cameras and tablets for contact tracing. Since his district focused its Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) funding in other areas, he creatively used his allocated budget for these purchases.

“It’s always chaos with new technology,” he laughed. “So we try to educate and do as much training as possible.” He relayed that his staff appreciates the addition of technology since now they do not have to do so many things manually.

His wishlist includes electric buses and solar panels to mount on buses.

Listen to Greg Jackson share more on the STN podcast:

“Covid has had some blessings in disguise. It’s forced us to look at some of our inefficacies and become more efficient,” said Jennifer Vobis, executive director of transportation for Clark County School District near Las Vegas, the fifth-largest district in the U.S.

Though she began her job during the pandemic, Vobis confirmed that most of the transition was seamless and support for both staff and student riders was uninterrupted. For example, she conducted online training for her 1,500 drivers during the pandemic shutdowns.

Listen to Jennifer Vobis share more on the STN podcast:

Commenting that COVID-19 is likely here to stay and requires a continuous adjustment of processes, she shared about a new system that updates transportation offices and parents of students when a driver calls out sick. Drivers are provided with disinfecting supplies, PPE and training to keep buses clean — a process she foresees continuing into the future.

“This is our reality. Let’s use this information to move forward,” she said, cautioning against a futile desire to return to “pre-Covid” times.

Corpin noted that managing parent expectations is crucial and Vobis agreed, adding that communication about bus cleaning and student safety protocols helps greatly with parent satisfaction. Contact tracing and live-look cameras are other ways that technology can be used to assist in this area, she said.

Assistant Director of Transportation Anthony Shields shared that Hays ISD, one of the fastest-growing districts in Texas, was able to achieve significant route consolidation during COVID-19, made possible by robust routing and student tracking software.

Electronic driver check-in and bus sanitization are other COVID-19-inspired developments that he forecasts will stick around for good.

Listen to Anthony Shields share more on the STN podcast:

Looking ahead, Vobis shared that Clark County purchased several electric buses with grant funds. She currently runs propane buses, which she said work well for the rural areas the district serves.

Jackson noted that new technology projects require extensive preparation and collaboration with partners. The same goes for the district’s recently implemented propane buses and its plan to add electric, with infrastructure being a major consideration in both cases.

Shields shared that Hays ISD purchased 10 new propane buses through a grant and is now focusing on constructing infrastructure for additional vehicles.

Corpin next questioned what strategies and technology the panelists used to help them operate while under the pressures of COVID-19.

Photo courtesy of Vincent Rios Creative.

Vobis shared that Clark County communicated with the community and cooperated with local public transit to get older students to and from school, which gave students more flexibility and took pressure off the district transportation department.

“When there’s better efficiencies, we’re providing better service,” she stated.

When Jeffco had to cut routes due to driver shortages, Jackson focused on communicating with parents and supporting the drivers who were still working. A parent carpool system was created to help make sure students got to and from school. Alternative transportation providers ALC Schools and HopSkipDrive help transport students in foster care or those with special needs.

Hays ISD likewise enlisted parents to help transport their children. Additionally, ridership technology shows if students are not using the bus transportation their parents requested, allowing for further streamlining.

“Adaptability is a sign of resilience,” Vobis stated.

Related: Contingency, Scenario Planning Vital to Resuming Transportation of Students Post-Coronavirus
Related: (STN Podcast E14) – Leading in Uncertainty: Transportation Director Shares Post-Coronavirus Plan & Encouragement
Related: Student Transporters Reflect on COVID-19 Changes, Lessons Learned
Related: No ‘Easy Button’ Available to Student Transporters in Response to Coronavirus
Related: STN’s 2021 School Bus Technology Super Users
Related: Technology Return on Investment Isn’t Solely Monetary, Session Advises

The panelists summed up the point that it is important to stay open and flexible, work collaboratively with one’s team, be open in communication with staff and families, and show appreciation for the hard work transportation staff is doing during the pandemic.

In that vein, Corpin advised attendees to attend that afternoon’s Trade Show and thoughtfully consider and purchase technology and services that will best support transportation staff as well as the families they serve.

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