Student transportation professionals face fresh challenges every day in the face of an enduring pandemic that has radically transformed nearly every facet of education and busing.
Keeping buses disinfected has become a top priority and routing is a significant challenge as officials respond to changing school schedules and practicing social distancing.
Amid these complex challenges, student transportation leaders in one Ohio school district are learning that powerful school bus technology can help with one of the most fundamental requirements of their job: being a champion for the students.
While many districts are using Student Ridership data for contact tracing related to COVID-19, Lima City Schools bus drivers say it’s helped strengthen their student relationships.
“Calling a student by their name, it’s so simple but can make a huge difference to the student and the way they start their day,” said Randall Crossley, transportation supervisor for the district. “With everyone wearing their masks now, it can be hard for our drivers to identify students like they used to. But with the (Student Ridership) tablet, each student’s name appears as they scan on to the bus, and our drivers can say “Good Morning Billy, Good morning, Rachel.”
“I don’t know if we can measure what that’s worth to our students and our drivers.”
Averting Trains & Improving Service
Lima is the sort of blue-collar Midwestern town that epitomizes the term Rust Belt. The town’s locomotive factory closed years ago, but train tracks crisscross the city of 45,000, creating the sort of traffic congestion you might get stuck in at rush-hour in the state capital of Columbus.
Bus drivers regularly act as train lookouts for their colleagues, helping them avoid the train crossing delays that can interrupt on-time arrivals.
“Ever since they changed the rules around trains being able to stop on the tracks, it’s made our jobs a lot more challenging and it’s one more way the Synovia system is able to help us communicate better with parents,” Crossley said. “We are able to share where the bus is and how long it’s been there and people in our community understand the challenges of the trains.”
The city still has a strong manufacturing base, with a refinery and military vehicle plant still employing thousands.
Crossley and his team invested in the Synovia GPS Fleet Tracking solution two years ago to help them better manage challenging situations with parents.
Their problem is a familiar one: Parents are a few minutes late to meet a young student who can’t walk home alone and then call the school to complain.
“We’ve dealt with it for years, and sometimes students end up back at school because their parent was not there and then the principal has to drive them home. It’s a safety issue we have to take seriously,” he said. “Now we can pull the data and show the parent that the bus was there at the right time. It’s changed the way we can interact with our customers and ultimately keep the students safe.”
Contact Tracing, First Name Basis & Calming Parents
Like nearly every school district, Lima officials made bus hygiene a top priority for back to school in 2020.
And they’ve used the contact tracing capability a few times to help school officials communicate with the right families about possible transmission of COVID-19. The school nurse has the seating chart for every bus, and can quickly translate ridership info into a specific list of who might be in close contact with a potentially infected student.
Lima officials said the Student Ridership feature has been especially useful in helping drivers keep track of students when they move across town and to stay on a first-name basis.
“We have students who regularly move across town and it changes our routes almost daily,” said Diane Bell, Lima’s assistant transportation supervisor. “Knowing the systems are talking and the drivers will have the information they need to adjust to new students help us better manage the changes.”
Bell said the Turn-by-Turn Navigation capability included with their tablet also helps drivers keep up with routing changes.
“Drivers are human and can make mistakes or forget a route has changed. With the navigation and the ridership, they know exactly where to go and what students should be on their bus,” Crossley said. “It’s another layer to help our drivers in this COVID environment that is changing all the time.”
Like so many Synovia customers cite, Student Ridership helps Lima officials respond to parents when kids do what kids do.
“We get a parent who calls us very worried because their student is not home and they don’t know what’s going on, and we’re able to pull up the information immediately and say they got off a few stops early and are probably at a friend’s house,” Bell explained. “Parents appreciate that we have that information and we don’t have to make a bunch of phone calls to figure out where that student is.”
Removing Paperwork & Adding Accountability
Lima does not have the largest fleet in Ohio with 18 buses serving 1,500 daily riders, but it may arguably be among the most connected and protected. The drivers use the Synovia tablet for daily trip inspections, which also includes the option for COVID-19 wellness checks and hygiene verifications.
While their community is small, some of their buses cover large distances transporting special needs students to facilities in Findlay and Columbus every week. They even travel as far as Manhattan for a yearly field trip and to Alabama for the “moon buggy” competition.
Knowing those buses are monitored with reliable GPS tracking systems gives the district another layer of comfort as the buses navigate the region’s notoriously fierce winter conditions and highways very far from home.
“We value our drivers and we look at the Synovia system as a way to help them do their jobs better and for all of us to better serve our students, that’s what it’s always all about,” Crossley stated.
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