School districts are finding customized solutions and successfully leveraging technology to meet COVID-19 challenges. But that said, many different questions result in various answers.
“The one constant I’m hearing is uncertainty, and we don’t expect that to change any time soon,” said Bryan Mitchell, head of marketing for CalAmp company Synovia Solutions, during a July 13 webinar.
Brad Bishop, founder of Synovia Solutions and the Here Comes The Bus app, shared that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s school bus guidelines focused on challenges that are familiar but newly urgent to student transporters: student and driver safety, communications, and route management. Solutions and procedures vary widely from district to district across the U.S., he explained.
One such example was provided by Elisa L. Schubert, the transportation manager for Pennsylvania-based school bus contractor Brightbill Transportation. In the school districts that she oversees, staff frequently sanitize high-touch areas on the bus and use a nightly nebulizing spray that is left to dry overnight.
Micah Brassfield, a director with consultant group the TransPar Group of Companies, elaborated that transportation staff must consider the feasibility of federal or state guidelines as well as be clear about district and community expectations. She related variances such as districts not physically distancing students but requiring them to wear personal protective equipment (PPE) and disinfect their hands.
Schubert added that parents are being asked if they can drive their own children to school. The current driver shortage still necessitates placing two students to a seat, albeit instead of the usual three. Masks and/or face shields will be in use, as will contact tracing. Additionally, drivers must be focused on the road so their job will not entail policing students who show up at the bus stop without masks and none will be turned away.
In answering an attendee’s question about clear plastic “transit curtains,” which can be used as barriers between the driver and students, Brassfield said that most districts Transpar is working with are declining such modifications in favor of frequent sanitization and contact tracing of students and drivers. Schubert agreed, citing the strict standards that school buses are built and held to.
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Staff PPE is another area in which districts have different procedures. Brassfield said that she’s primarily seeing drivers who transport students with special needs wearing face shields in addition to masks and gloves because they must remain in closer proximity to these students, such as when they secure them in child safety restraint systems (CSRS).
Due to high ambient temperatures and most buses being enclosed spaces with no air conditioning, Schubert’s drivers are simply being assigned clear face shields to wear. Masks may be worn if desired, she added.
How Technology Can Help
Gathering information from technology currently in use and asking the right questions, Brassfield said, is integral to making a school startup plan—whether a district is planning in-person schooling, virtual classes, or a hybrid of the two.
“Use the data that you have at your disposal to determine what the impact to your operation will be, as you get answers from your district about what return to school will look like,” she advised.
Once a plan has been made and routes have been designed, Synovia’s route management helps ensure drivers stay on time and on track.
Synovia, which was recently acquired by CalAmp, has been in the business of making school bus safety technology for almost 20 years. Bishop explained that features such as student ridership tracking data can be used as a contact tracing tool in the age of COVID-19.
Schubert has been using student ID cards that have unique bar codes along with Synovia’s student ridership tool for over five years. Now, she’s incorporating a seating chart so students who were within six feet of an infected student can be easily identified.
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Another piece of technology that has special case use during COVID-19 is Synovia’s driver time and attendance solution, which allows a driver to clock in and then tracks them aboard their bus. Schubert said that it not only traces the movements of drivers, but also assists efficiency by allowing for extra routes to be added when windows of time become available.
If a driver cannot return their bus in time for the Brightbill Transportation team to perform its routine nightly disinfecting, a reminder to disinfect the bus before the next day’s service begins can also be added as a post-trip in Synovia’s Bus Guardian. Brassfield reminded listeners that additional time for disinfecting the bus is something that must be built into the schedule, especially as buses may have to carry fewer students and run more routes due to physical distancing guidelines.
Here Comes The Bus is a popular app used by over 300 school districts to communicate bus arrival times to parents. Schubert said she anticipates using it more than she did in previous years as another tool for districts to provide accurate communication to parents.
“Everyone’s wanting to stay more connected,” Bishop confirmed, relating that he’s had an increased interest in the app over the past couple of months.