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School Bus Industry Leader Panel Discusses Back-to-School Planning

Planning for the 2020 return to school has involved unprecedented challenges in every area of K-12 management, not least in student transportation. On August 11, a panel of industry experts gathered to discuss the policies, technologies, and operational changes they have put in place as they adapt to these unique circumstances.

Hosted by Tyler Technologies, the panel included three innovative district transportation administrators from across the country, as well as the routing manager for a K-12 transportation contractor, who each provided new angles and perspectives on the crisis and how their state, region, and team have responded.

The panelists:

  • Beth Lapa, Assistant Director, Elgin Area School District U-46, Ill.
  • Steve McElroy, Executive Director of Operations, Columbus City Schools, Ohio
  • Timothy Shannon, Director of Transportation, Twin Rivers USD, Calif.
  • Lesley Davis, Manager of Routing Services, Student Transportation of America

Watch the webinar recording.

Below you can read a preview of the panelists’ thoughts on this time of school reopening.

Tim Shannon: We’ve spent the summer doing meal distribution, textbook distribution, and we’ve delivered 17,000 Chromebooks to our students. Preparation for distance learning was tough, and now back to school will be even tougher. We have to keep our fleet in shape, our inspections and certifications running, and have policies in place for keeping people separated, how to get people into the shop, it’s “plan, plan, plan.”

Steve McElroy: We do our best to service our community and many districts across the nation are using yellow buses to do the same thing. We have a group of families whose children are physically disabled and we’ve been taking food to them five days a week so they don’t need to worry as much about making it to the stores.

Another big topic now, many big districts in Ohio are considering going 100% virtual until something else changes. If we go that direction, how do we make sure our families have reliable internet access? We’re working on going to one-to-one to make sure every child has their own laptop, but how do we make sure every family has the technology they need?

Beth Lapa: Recently my superintendent said, “At the beginning of the pandemic it was a sprint, then through April and May it was a marathon. Now it’s a sprint again.”

I’m working on our self-certification processes for students to let us know if they’re healthy enough to go to school. We are still running routes for students who need to go to therapeutic schools, and I need to have a plan for what to do if, for example, we get the student to the school and they can’t be let inside because they do a temperature check and they have a fever. If we can’t let them off the bus, how do we keep them and the driver safe? Who do we contact?

We’re also coming up with how to provide enough work for our staff of 300 drivers and 85 assistants to make sure they can get paid enough to live on. We want to take care of our people. We’re looking at having them come in to sanitize buses each day, instead of hiring a third-party company to do that.

Tim: We’re facing the same thing, and we’re updating job descriptions to make sure we can work with our driver union to expand the work we can ask our staff to do.

Beth: I’m working hard now on the plan to manage payroll and the punching of time clocks. We don’t want to have more than 350 people coming into one building to punch their time. I’m working with Tyler Technologies now to see what we can do to get that data where we need it.

Tim: We’re also working with Tyler and some other companies that integrate with them to add what we need to our system to manage the punch in. We’re hoping we can find a way to use federal money to buy the on-board tablets so that our drivers can clock in from the bus.

Steve: We have the Tyler Drive tablets now and we are in the planning stages to have our drivers, aides, and attendants use them to clock in on our buses so they don’t have to go into our bus compounds. That process is good, it helps us keep our drivers from going into the compound, and increases use of the tablet. We have a unique system where our routes update twice a week because we have so many routes and changes.

All that together, being able to clock in, have the aide clock in, and have the driver’s route up and available each day and updated each day, helps us to manage our transportation responsibilities.

Tim: Let me tell you, when I started at my district our department was the same as it was in 1969. We had software and it was still in the box on the shelf.

Beth: We were the same way!

Steve: I think the term “that’s the way we used to do it” should be made illegal.

Tim: Now we’ve become a tech and data-driven operation. But one good thing COVID has brought, if you can call it that, is that our drivers are more comfortable with the idea of adding new electronic processes than ever before. There’s no pushback, they see the safety value. We’re also adding more technology to protect our students.

For example, we’re working now to set up the RFID scan cards they use when they get on and off the bus to be the same cards they can scan for food services, even to get into their Chromebooks. We need to know where our kids are and where they’ve been and this will help us do it, and safely. I don’t know how we could run our department now without it.

Beth: We have a similar story to Tim. When I started we were just a skeleton operation, but we grew our staff and our technology, we added Versatrans Arrival Board and e-Link, we were able to provide better customer service, and this summer we used those tools to help campuses get the food deliveries and Chromebooks out to our students. But my first project when I get off this call is to look at those scan cards.

Watch the webinar recording to hear more from our panelists and special guest Lesley Davis. 

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