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TSD Panelists Discuss Implications of Electric School Bus on Special Needs Service

During the 2023 Transporting Students with Disabilities and Special Needs Conference, panelists discussed implementing electric school buses into their fleets and the impact it had on the industry’s most vulnerable population.

Sitting on the Nov. 18 panel was Peggy Stone, director of transportation for Lincoln County Schools in West Virginia, Steven Mentzer, senior EV principal consultant for First Consulting, and Michael Hogains, a driver trainer with Los Angeles Unified School District. The panel was moderated by Jessica Keithan, co-founder and director of the Texas Electric School Bus Project.

Mentzer started the discussion by painting a picture of the school buses many remember as children themselves. He used words like big, smelly cramped and loud. For himself, a child with undiagnosed ADHD, he said the school bus provided him with the type of environment he could thrive in. He shared he never understood why there were kids praying for the ride to be over. Now, he realizes that students with sensory challenges, for example, could find the ride to school difficult.

He explained that in addition to its zero emissions, Mentzer said that electric school buses are quieter and create a better, more comfortable environment for the ride to school.

Stone agreed, noting that she remembered starting her career as a bus driver and one little girl on the autism spectrum who would put her hands on her ears and scream while riding on the school bus. But electric school buses, she said, are quieter and provide a more comfortable ride. The state of West Virginia engaged in an electric bus pilot program throughout the state with GreenPower Motor Company, where various districts were able to try out the Nano BEAST.

She noted that the challenge, however, was climbing steep grades, battery range and running the heater in cold weather. Some routes, she said, are better suited for electric buses, whereas others are not.

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Hogains, on the other hand, said the technology is the future and reiterated the announcement that LAUSD made on completely converting one of its main facilities to electric by 2026. LAUSD runs about 1,500 routes with about 16 electric school buses in service currently. He discussed one challenge of electric buses being quiet.

Because electric school buses make no sound, he said a particular student with a vision impairment didn’t know where the front of the bus was located and ended up walking toward the rear. Another challenge, Hogains said, is the vehicle range, especially as the City of Los Angeles is almost 800 square miles. Hogains noted that he believes the range will improve in the future. He said one bus driver returned after a route with only one percent of battery left. He attributed the feeling to only having one percent left on a cell phone battery.

Mentzer reminded attendees that route analysis is vital to implementing electric buses.

Stone noted that running the heaters in the winter affected range. Mentzer shared that one way to offset that is by running a diesel auxiliary heater, instead of a battery-powered heater. While adding some emissions to the ride, readers have reported that the amount of fuel used is nominal. Mentzer added that Type A buses are one of the hardest to deploy as they have a smaller range and he noted that the ongoing chassis shortage makes it hard to take delivery of the vehicles.

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Keithan advised making a plan from the start and asking for help with a fleet assessment and route assessment to create a scalable plan. Hogains added that one challenge LAUSD has run into is that various components of the electric transition from software and charging equipment to the buses themselves don’t all mesh perfectly together, so attendees need to be careful when selecting each component.

Additionally, the panelists agreed that retraining drivers on operating the vehicles is just as important.

Mentzer added that First Student is funding a study with the National Safety Council to examine electric bus trends. The first phase, he said, will look at safety performance and impacts on the bus driver. Study results are expected to be available in June. The second phase of the study, he shared, is looking at student behavior. Interviews, surveys and questionaries will be sent to parents, students and bus monitors.

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