The school bus driver shortage is hardly a new issue for the student transportation industry. Economic conditions and budget pressure have made it more difficult to recruit and retain drivers — then the COVID pandemic turned those difficulties into an ongoing crisis.
As districts look to stand out from the crowd and attract qualified candidates, they often turn to incentives such as hiring bonuses or offering more on-the-job training. Another tool is one that requires a new approach: implementing and showcasing technology to make potential applicants rethink what a career in student transportation is like.
The transportation team at Orchard Farm School District in Missouri has seen the benefits of this approach first-hand. Discussing their transportation technology, Routing Specialist Malissa Duran told Tyler Technologies, “It’s a retention factor for employees, but it’s also a selling point when we’re interviewing new people… When we interview drivers and say, ‘Hey, we have this tablet system on board,’ [they say,] ‘Oh, really? What’s that?’ And we tell them, ‘It gives you turn-by-turn directions. It gives you all your student details. You can message back and forth to the office if you need to.’ I mean, it’s amazing. I would recommend it for any transportation department. I can tell you that right now. It’s fabulous.”
Arming Drivers with Student Information
The first step at Orchard Farms was to implement the right software. Job seekers considering applying for driver positions may have concerns about remembering important information about the students riding in their buses each day. The safe transport of students relies on accurately following pick-up and drop-off schedules, adding stops for new students, being equipped to meet student needs, and more. With such precious cargo, it’s no wonder this can feel intimidating.
But when transportation software can seamlessly integrate with student information software, drivers don’t have to rely on memory or handwritten notes. They can rest assured that their route sheets are up to date and have all the information they need. Malissa saw a difference right away when her district moved from software that struggled to sync data to Tyler’s Student Transportation software.
“Being able to provide more up-to-date route sheets for our drivers, being able to keep our student information more updated because we could sync it back and forth seamlessly overnight… was able to help us increase our readiness,” she said. Not only did this ensure that new students or new stops were captured daily, it also created a new level of empowerment for drivers. Malissa noted, “You can import medical alerts… so the drivers are able to go through and say, ‘Okay, this student has epilepsy. I need to go get a seizure response plan. I need to be prepared.’ The drivers have more information at their hands.”
Integrated Student Tracking
Software used in the transportation office can only go so far towards empowering drivers throughout their route. Part of what drew the team at Orchard Farm to Tyler’s Student Transportation solution was its fully integrated tablet offering: Tyler Drive™.
A key component of Tyler Drive is its student-tracking functionality. Students with RFID identification cards can scan onto and off the bus. With each scan, the tablet provides basic student information on the screen and automatically logs when and where the student scanned. If the student is boarding the wrong bus or leaving at the wrong stop, Tyler Drive will automatically notify the bus driver. New drivers are typically unfamiliar with the students, so an integrated student identification system is paramount to the driver onboarding process. Most importantly, this helps ensure increased safety for both the driver and passengers in reaching their correct destination.
Duran told Tyler, “When a student goes to scan on board, if they’re on that wrong bus it alerts and tells the driver, ‘Hey, you’re not supposed to be here. You need to go to bus 12.’” She also called out the importance of having an updated record of where and when each student boards and disembarks. “When you have a school going, ‘Hey, did Susie get on the bus?’… Well, maybe bus two has a substitute driver and doesn’t know all the students.” Where in the past, this could lead to fear and confusion if the student had fallen asleep or was, for some reason, not responding. With scanning technology, the driver can work from accurate information. Duran compared the before and after by saying, “In this same scenario, that secretary would go, “Yep. Susie’s on bus two. She scanned on at 2:30.” Bam, crisis averted. We’re not tearing the buses apart just because Susie’s napping.”
When asked what this means to her drivers, she explained, “They know that it’s going to be harder for them to make a mistake. It protects them.”
Up-to-Date Route Guidance
Beyond student information, Tyler Drive offers a key benefit: route-specific turn-by-turn directions to each scheduled stop. The dashboard-mounted tablet has the option to provide visual cues, audio queues, or both if preferred. Hiring districts find this is a benefit over having new or substitute drivers referencing paper route sheets while on the road.
Duran explained, “the information in this tablet is live information. So, if I go in and I change your route this morning, when you go on your bus this afternoon, your route is going to be updated.”
The built-in GPS/AVL system also allows for rerouting on the fly when wrong turns or missed stops may occur. This feature is equipped to maintain district-defined safety protocols when calibrating. New and sub-drivers may be unfamiliar with a district’s routes at first, and even experienced drivers can make mistakes occasionally, so a reliable rerouting system is needed when changes need to be made on the spot.
When urgent communication is needed, drivers can send messages to their dispatchers directly from the tablet. Oppositely, when operations must immediately contact a driver, they can safely and securely message them via their tablet, as opposed to radio messages, which are not always secure, or smartphone messages which often cannot be used while operating the bus.
When asked how she managed concerns drivers or district leaders may have had about implementing new technology, Malissa said, “Your organization has to change with the times because if not, you’re going to be left behind. You have to be willing to use that technology. If you continue trying to solve today’s problems with yesterday’s tools, you run the risk of not being successful tomorrow.”
To learn more about Tyler Drive and other solutions from Tyler Technologies, visit tylertech.com/stn.