It’s the tail end of Back to School — the perfect time to reflect and learn from this year’s launch. Zum, the leading national provider of modernized student transportation, has authored this case study to address the three most common student transportation challenges today — 1) school bus driver shortages, 2) changes to/stacking of bell schedules, and 3) outdated routing, transportation management, and communication technology — and what school districts can do to solve them.
1. Solving School Bus Driver Shortages
School bus driver shortages are nothing new, but the COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated staffing issues, encouraging many in an already aging workforce to retire. Howard County was particularly hard hit. In its student transportation RFP for the 2023-2024 school year, Howard County Public School System (HCPSS) disclosed to all bidders that incumbent contractors were short by 100+ school bus drivers — 20% of the district’s needs — and had been for years. In Zum’s experience, this shortage exists because:
- Driving an outdated, analog school bus isn’t attractive to Gen Z professionals, who are technology-native and want to be at the forefront of innovation;
- Bus drivers aren’t compensated well (poor hourly rates, limited medical benefits, no 401K), and can earn more driving for Amazon, UPS, or city transit; and
- Contractors use antiquated recruitment and training methods.
In March 2023, Howard County Public School System awarded Zum a 230-route contract. Zum had five months to recruit, train, and hire over 230 bus drivers, a tall task. It did so by:
- Evaluating the employment market in Howard County, and Maryland broadly, to devise a competitive and comprehensive compensation package;
- Launching an extensive multilingual, interactive digital and on-ground marketing campaign to educate and attract candidates;
- Building a 20-person on-ground training team for both in-class and behind-the-wheel (BTW) instruction, allowing Zum to train and certify new school bus drivers.
As a result, by the start of the 2023-2024 school year, Zum had trained and certified 87 new school bus drivers, hired 65 pre-certified local school bus drivers, and as a stopgap, temporarily flown in over 70 drivers from out of state — all of whom received extensive training to drive school buses in both Howard County and the State of Maryland. This reduced Howard County’s driver shortage from 20% to 3%. Within a month of the start of school, Zum had sourced and hired 250+ drivers, filling the 100+ driver shortage and turning Howard County’s historic shortage to a driver surplus.
“Within a month of school starting, Zum had completely filled the 100+ driver shortage, with additional drivers to spare.”
2. Designing Bell Schedules and Bus Routes for Maximum Efficiency
Districts across the nation are considering and/or implementing multiple-tier bell schedules. Small changes to bell schedules can offer students flexibility and more time to sleep, improving classroom outcomes. Multiple-tier bell schedules can also reduce cost and alleviate pressure from chronic driver shortages. In 2021, Zum’s partner, San Francisco Unified, saved $3M in annual transportation costs by switching to a multi-tier bell schedule.
Yet these same schedules can also be disruptive, if:
- New bell times are implemented without input from transportation providers, and bus routes are forced to fit these bell times after the fact;
- Districts use outdated technology to design routes, because multiple-tier bell schedules are extremely complex; and
- Districts don’t use modern, integrated technology, because without data and real-time feedback, a District can’t adjust its bus routes to fix problems and improve performance.
This year, the Howard County Public Schools System switched to a 3-tier bell schedule without full appreciation of how this would affect student transportation. To accommodate the new schedule, District Staff designed routes that were tightly compressed and stacked back to back, with unrealistic turnaround times. This naturally caused substantial bus delays, which cascaded through the tiered bell schedules. During the first week of school, for Tier 3 schools, only 83% of Zum buses were on time picking students up in the morning. In the afternoon, that figure was just 38%. This put significant strain on the students and families of Howard County.
To resolve the issue, Zum imported data from thousands of daily routes, then analyzed that data with its proprietary “Route Explorer” software, and used the results to recommend minor shifts to Howard County’s bell schedules. Once implemented, on-time performance for Tier 3 schools jumped from 83% to 98% in the morning, and from 38% to 94% in the afternoon. Zum’s use of technology all but eliminated bus delays, and gave HCPSS Staff the data they needed to make informed and effective routing and scheduling decisions.
“With the challenges of introducing a three-tier bus schedule, Zum used data and proprietary technology to dramatically improve and ensure on-time bus performance.”
3. Implementation of Modern Integrated School Transportation Technology
Today, we can track Amazon packages and Uber rides minute by minute. Parents should be able to do the same when their children ride the bus to school. Unfortunately, student transportation is stuck in the past: many school districts design bus routes on paper, bus drivers carry paper route sheets and pieces of chalk to mark the curb when they arrive at a stop, and parents have to pick up the phone and call to find the status of their child’s bus, and deliver feedback. These old ways persist because:
- The technology available to school districts across the country is outdated;
- School districts solve transportation issues piecemeal, implementing bits of technology that can’t talk to each other; and
- If the decision is made to implement new technology, it’s often deployed in steps or phases—i.e. first new routing software, then a parent-facing mobile app, then student identification (RFID) cards—rather than rolling everything contemporaneously, which reduces the efficacy of the technology.
In Howard County, Zum used modern routing technology and data to help HCPSS dramatically improve on-time bus performance. When HCPSS rolled out Zum’s Parent App, which allows parents to track the location of their child’s bus and deliver direct feedback, service climbed to a new level. In the subsequent five weeks, Howard County families rated Zum’s service 4,107 times; 97% of those ratings were 4 stars or higher (out of 5).
The Parent App immediately enabled two-way communication, as well as the collection of fast and actionable feedback. Zum’s partners benefit from its fully-integrated, end-to-end technology platform—including its proprietary routing software, GPS-enabled bus driver tablets, student RFID cards, and the Zum Parent App. This technology gives school districts across the country the tools they need to deliver world-class student transportation to their communities.
“This kind of two-way communication [with the Zum Parent App], and the accompanying collection of fast and actionable data, can help districts across the country improve their student transportation services.”
To learn more about how Zum is working with thousands of schools – like San Francisco Unified, Oakland Unified, Los Angeles Unified, Seattle Public Schools, San Bernardino City Unified, Spokane Public Schools and Howard County Public Schools – across the nation to modernize student transportation, visit Zum’s website. If interested in learning about how Zum can help your district, please request a demo.