As the industry looks forward to a post-pandemic future, many lessons learned over the past year could prove to be evergreen best practices, especially in terms of driver training.
Leon Langley, the assistant director of transportation for Montgomery County Public Schools in Maryland, said training is extremely important to him as he’s a teacher at heart. The former history teacher and school principal said when he transitioned from the classroom to the transportation department at Calvert County Public Schools, he immediately realized the importance of training bus drivers.
During the “Best Practices for a New Era of Driver Training” session at STN EXPO Virtual on Tuesday, Langley’s first advice when implementing a driver training program is to look at who the employees are and what help they need. He said Montgomery County has a diverse group of drivers who come from various educational backgrounds. He advised leaders to first ask, “Who are my learners?”
Another question he asked attendees to consider is, “How do I turn lemons into lemonade?” He said COVID-19 is a bitter fruit, but there are valuable lessons to be learned from the novel coronavirus pandemic that can provide refreshment for now and the future.
When thinking about training, Langley suggested, do student transporters consider both incoming new drivers and older veteran drivers? The latter is oftentimes the most difficult to train. He said the first step is asking what technology skills veteran drivers are comfortable with, which can be accomplished by surveying the drivers to see their technology weaknesses and strong points. Then, districts can continue bringing in drivers, with proper COVID-19 safety protocols in place, teach them, and further work with them on their weak points.
Another question Langley asked is if drivers and attendants are briefed on using email. If they have a school email account, do they use it? Do they even know how to access their email? Better yet, he asked, do they have a smartphone or a computer at home? He said starting with the basics will best help the ones who are having the most challenges using technology. Department leaders should come up with strategies to keep them engaged.
Heather Handschin, the supervisor of bus operations at Prince William County Schools in Virginia, commented in the session chat that her district’s training programs were moved mostly online out of necessity. “We will keep most of our training programs online, out of efficiency,” she said. “When the choice was removed, our staff adapted to technology.”
One strategy Langley suggested is to collaborate with district IT departments, to better prepare and engage staff members. His department goal during and post-COVID-19 is to continue to communicate. Getting staff on board with new technology is the first step in accomplishing that, he said.
Not only is keeping drivers trained on new technology a priority but so is keeping driver skills fresh, as some school districts remain in a full-virtual learning format. Langley explained that Montgomery County bus drivers haven’t transported students, except for a handful of children with disabilities, since school closures last March. But he said driving is a skill that needs to be continually practiced.
Because Montgomery County can keep its school bus drivers and attendants on staff and paid during in-person learning, they hold occasional school bus roadeos. He said not only are the event’s fun, but they also keep drivers behind-the-wheel.
Lucie White Skorup, an operations supervisor for special needs at Mt. Diablo Unified School District in California, said her students have yet to return to in-person learning. “We have been using the drivers to deliver foodservice three days a week,” she commented in the session chat. “The other two days a week we have been using the time to refresh and improve their skills and also become proficient on our new electric buses.”
Joshua Hinerman, supervisor of transportation for Robertson County School in Tennessee, said as a third-party commercial driver’s license examiner, he works with veteran drivers often. Hinerman noted that Tennessee recently approved online professional development, which he called a game-changer for both himself and bus drivers because now they can learn at their pace in the comfort of their home.
Sarah Tharp, the transportation director for Overton ISD in Texas, commented in the session chat that online training has not been an issue for her district. “I communicate with email and I see all my drivers most days,” she said. “I do feel like we are all missing the get-togethers, though. That used to keep relationships more intact, but we are managing.”
For specific online resources, Langley said Montgomery County uses video modules as well as online quizzes for the drivers. Meanwhile, Hinerman said he utilizes the School Bus Safety Company’s curriculum along with others, and he can tailor the training to whatever specific needs the drivers have.
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Not only is training school bus drivers and attendants on technology and professional development important, so is management training and mentoring those within the department to be positive leaders.
Langley prompted the attendees to ask: Who is your replacement? What are you doing to prepare for that? Is someone ready to take over your position tomorrow?
Hinerman said another aspect of training is asking the drivers what they want. That way, he said, drivers can get the most out of their training experience.
As the industry continues to make lemonade out of lemons, Langley said technology is here to help. He advised attendees to look toward video platforms and to encourage younger applicants to apply, as they are going to be more tech-savvy.
Hinerman echoed Langley’s statement on the importance of training via technology. He said going into next the fiscal year, he will ask his administration for more funding to help with the technology investments. He admitted that he did lose a couple of drivers who weren’t comfortable with learning technology or who didn’t want to.
But he noted that many drivers have been very receptive to the technology and learning new systems. Hinerman said not only does training drivers on technology use cases have benefits to the employees it also helps the entire district. Hinerman, however, reminded attendees that not all training can be done online. For instance, bus evacuations should be conducted in person, with COVID-19 safety guidelines in place.
Langley’s parting advice was to use the tech-savvy drivers to teach other drivers who may be struggling. It not only takes some of the burdens on your office staff, he said, but it also helps drivers build a relationship.