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A New Way of Conducting Evacuation Drills

At the onset of COVID-19, transportation leaders had to find creative ways to keep their staff and students trained in a myriad of topics, despite virtual learning nationwide. Ensuring proper distancing between students and limiting exposure time during emergency evacuation drills has remained a priority.

One Iowa school district figured out how to disseminate information to both students and school bus drivers in a creative and informative way. Bondurant-Farrar Community School District, located just outside of Des Moines, used a home-made training video to solve many of the district’s original evacuation challenges, while also attempting to reach all students amid the pandemic.

Mary Jo Hetrick, transportation director for the district, said her staff usually divides the entire student body into three groups. Transportation officials then take 15 to 20 minutes going over the features of one particular school bus. However, she noted that the types of roof hatches and windows can vary from bus to bus, based on the type and manufacturer. The decision was made to familiarize students with all of the district’s buses.

When the district returned students to class via a hybrid model in August and with COVID-19 mitigation strategies in place, Hetrick brainstormed ways to cut back on the amount of time students were in close proximity while performing the evacuation drills. Her department created a training video that is now shown prior to hands-on exercises, to reduce each student’s time on board by 10 minutes.

The video covers every kind of roof hatch, so the students will be always be trained on proper and safe evacuation. “The video is a more effective tool for us since it covers all the different types rather than just one [bus],” Hetrick added.

Seventh grade student demonstrates opening the bus roof hatch (Image courtesy of Bondurant-Farrar Middle School)

The video also covers opening the loading door from the inside and outside, and it features student passengers demonstrating the functions, highlighting the potential need for a child to stand on bus seat to open the roof hatch. Hetrick added that the video also demonstrates how to operate a fire extinguisher, something that is not an option during regular evacuation drills.

Speaking from experience, she observed that drivers who are training three or four different groups of students could easily forget to mention an important step. However, the training video allows every student to receive the same information in a more detailed manner.

“One thing we did specify in our video was how to brake … there are hydraulic brakes, the foot pedal brakes, and then there’s the actual air brake that’s released by the button,” Hetrick said, adding that the video covers all three. “If I or a driver was slumped over the wheel, the bus could still be rolling. But [students] can pull that brake and be able to stop it, so it doesn’t go any further. I think that’s a huge win for the kids.”

She explained the video also reduces the possibility of students missing class time. She noted that teachers can show the video at the start of the morning lesson.


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Hetrick said the students later practice what they saw in the video on the bus while wearing masks. “It’s only directed to the kids that are sitting in that seat [that must perform the evacuation],” Hetrick said. “[It serves as] a reminder, you open this window, you use this roof hatch. Not all the kids get the hands-on [experience], but at least they see where the exits are throughout the bus, and it still qualifies for our required twice-a-year fire and emergency drills.”

In addition to the students, the bus drivers are required to review the video at quarterly in service meetings. Hetrick added that some drivers do participate in the hands-on student training evacuations, so the video and drills cover state requirements as well.

While she added that she anticipates the video becoming a standard practice at Bondurant-Farrar, she imagines it will need updates. For instance, the district will be purchasing its first bus with lap/shoulder seatbelts, as required by the state of Iowa on all school buses purchased after October 2019. The video will need to include buckling and unbuckling procedures, for example.

Meanwhile, Beaufort County School District in South Carolina held an abbreviated bus evacuation drill this year due to the pandemic. Director of Transportation Eldridge Black, Jr., said students are normally expected to perform in-person exercises. But this school year is not normal. Black explained that the training was performed similar to safety instructions provided by flight attendants.

School bus driver Bernie Engelhaupt teaches students emergency evacuation protocol (Image courtesy of Bondurant-Farrar Middle School)

“Our [administration] didn’t want the students touching different surfaces, and then congregating behind the bus and putting people within the six-foot social distancing [area],” Black said. “The state also instructed us at that time to have windows open.”

He added the exercise was kept within the mandated 15-minute timeframe allowed for gatherings.

One of the greatest lessons Black said he learned during COVID-19 keeping communication lines open. He said his staff became accustomed during the pandemic to using email to remain in touch. Now, he said, he simply sends email reminders to his school bus drivers when evacuation drills are scheduled.

He added that due to COVID-19, Beaufort County implemented seating charts on the bus. Black said the seating charts are helping school principals or substitute drivers call students by their first name as they are conducting the evacuation drills.

Middle school teacher Elizabeth White helps lead emergency evacuation drills (Image courtesy of Bondurant-Farrar Middle School)
Middle school teacher Elizabeth White helps lead emergency evacuation drills (Image courtesy of Bondurant-Farrar Middle School)

Black added he’s fortunate because this year he was able to train 98 percent of his employees on evacuations. He noted that some drivers were out on vacation or had to quarantine due to contact tracing.

Meanwhile, Janet Ulrich, the director of transportation at Aurora Public Schools in Colorado, added that she also had to alter evacuation drills to adhere to the new COVID-19 protocols. Normally, her drivers are assigned certain days and students to conduct the training, noting it’s an “all-hands-on-deck approach.”


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However, last fall during school closure, drivers were required to watch a training video on how to conduct an evacuation. A follow-up quiz was included. The training was incorporated into the district’s professional development days, when students were learning remotely.

With all students now back in traditional classrooms, Ulrich said her department is working to conduct hands-on evacuation drills. She added that in addition to implementing COVID-19 protocols, Aurora Public Schools is in the process of installing lap/shoulder seatbelts, which will be a new training element for the students and drivers. Currently, 18 of the district’s 143 buses are equipped with the three-point systems.

The district also has assigned seats this year and is running buses at reduced capacity. “I think having reduced ridership numbers will make the evacuations much quicker, just because you don’t have as many kids to get off the bus,” Ulrich explained.

While the seating charts are new for general education routes due to contact tracing efforts, Ulrich said she doesn’t believe the policy will impact evacuations, as older students normally sit at the back of the bus anyways and assist with helping younger students out the rear door. “As far as evacuating the students, the process is the same regardless of who rides, or how many kids are on the bus,” she said.

The main difference, Ulrich explained, is that when students exit the buses they will need to line up and space out at a certain location, while awaiting their return to classes.

While Ulrich said the virtual evacuations were a good backup for meeting the state driver requirements, she said she believes that hands-on training is a better way to conduct the drills, as it reinforces proper student behavior. With an online video, a student wouldn’t be corrected if they happen to do something incorrectly, she concluded.

Editor’s Note: As reprinted in the May 2021 issue of School Transportation News

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