Ken Martinez watched interior video footage of a little girl on board a school bus covering her ears and appearing agitated. She had been placed back on a diesel bus after the electric bus she had been riding on went into the shop for scheduled service. And she was not happy about the new experience. Her parents relayed that the vibrations of the diesel bus were negatively impacting her ride.
Martinez, the director of transportation for Salt Lake City School District in Utah, explained electric school buses (ESB) are quieter and without the same vibrations common of a diesel engine, which could be further complicating the sensory challenges of some students. He noted that because the electric buses ride quietly and smoothly, they qualify even more as an extension of the classroom.
Besides the obvious benefits of zero or low emissions for improved student and driver health, school districts have seen additional benefits to electric and propane school buses, especially for students with special needs. Some of these perspectives were shared at the Transporting Students with Disabilities and Special Needs Conference in November. A session presented by electric bus manufacturer GreenPower Motor Company provided districts an opportunity to share real-world experiences in deploying the Type A all-electric Nano Beast during a pilot project implemented in West Virginia.
The Nano Beast was deployed for a six-week period across the state. Representatives from Clay County and Wyoming County school districts spoke about their experiences during the session. We deployed the Nano Beast all-electric school bus on our most diverse special needs route, as we really wanted to test it out as soon as we got it to see how it performed,” said Jared Fitzwater, the transportation director for Clay County School District during the session. He explained the benefits of the vehicle’s acceleration, adding that it is a smooth ride. “Our data showed that it reduced the disruptions on the bus. The quietness, the calming, those kids behaved better. It was amazing to see.”
John Henry, the assistant superintendent for Wyoming County Schools agreed, citing a positive shift in student behavior. The quieter ride on the ESB gave students an easier
opportunity to talk with each other without yelling. He, too, recalled a student who had a hard transition going back to the diesel bus once the pilot was over.
Another session at the conference also touched on the benefits electric vehicles could serve for students who have difficulties processing sensory information. However, that’s not to say implementing electric school buses doesn’t come with its own set of challenges, such as infrastructure set up and charging.
Peggy Stone, director of transportation Lincoln County Schools in West Virginia, who also participated in the state’s pilot program, noted that some routes are not suitable for the ESBs. However she recalled starting her career as a bus driver and one little girl on the autism spectrum who would put her hands on her ears and scream while riding on the school bus. But electric school buses, she said, are quieter and provide a more
comfortable ride, especially for students with disabilities.
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Salt Lake City’s Martinez added that his district currently runs four Micro Bird electric Type A and eight Blue Bird All American RE Electric Type D school buses. He noted that the Type A buses transport students with special needs and disabilities. “When we first got [the electric Type A buses], we were faced with the mileage challenge,” he explained, adding that his staff had to reroute buses to accommodate for range. At first, the Type A buses, we’re only getting 60 miles on one charge. After driver training on aspects such as regenerative braking, range improved to around 98 miles. However, the ESB grants the district applied for required interior heaters to be fully electric, he noted. This has resulted in losing about 18 percent of the range during the winter months.
Martinez recounted a humorous anecdote he often shares with others. Via onboard video, he heard some students one day commenting about how the electric bus they were riding on is “like a Tesla.” He said that perception elevates the allure of riding on an electric school bus. “It’s really helped, especially with the special needs to really help calm them,” he said on ESBs in general, adding that some parents are requesting the electric vehicles.
Meanwhile, Brandon Coonrod, the interim director of student transportation for Portland Public Schools in Oregon, said another benefit of electric school buses that he has noticed is that they don’t have to be running when operating the wheelchair lifts. Portland’s in-house fleet consists of about 103 Type A buses from various OEMs. A little over 50 percent is propane-powered, with about 40 percent fueled by gasoline. However, he noted the district did purchase three electric buses from GreenPower with another four on the way from Thomas Built Buses.
He said all the electric buses are purchased with wheelchairs lifts, but he was concerned at first that the extra power to operate the lifts was going to impact the battery. He soon realized a secondary battery powers the wheelchair lift. The main vehicle battery pack charges the lift battery, so operation doesn’t consume as much energy as one would think, he shared. Coonrod added that this enables the driver to turn off the ESB and still operate the lift.
Scott Speer, the transportation director at Hannibal Public Schools in Missouri near the west bank of the Mississippi River, said his district looked at various alternative fueled options for their fleet. Ultimately, the district chose propane.
“Propane separated itself from the other fuels because of the following: A long-standing history of use by the National Park Service since the 1970s, improvements in fueling technology in the past decade, long-term sustainability, a low cost of facility conversion, affordability of the fuel source, and fit for our community,” he shared.
Currently the district has nine Type C propane school buses out of a total of 38 school buses in the fleet. He noted the district has no Type A buses at this time. “Benefits that we have noticed for our special education students and their parents include little to no exhaust fumes around the bus while loading and unloading, a quieter bus ride with less sensory overload, and buses that warm up faster than our diesel buses in the winter months,” he explained, adding that there have been no challenges with the buses that have impacted special needs students.
As for parent feedback, he said an initial complaint was that they were missing the propane school buses that pulled up to stops because of how much quieter they are compared to diesel buses. “They had been relying on the noise of the bus to alert them of the buses presence in front of their houses,” he said. “We simply apologized and shared the potential positive benefits of quieter school buses for their students with them.”
He noted that Hannibal purchases propane from Big River Oil, which won a bid for two years. He said Big River Oil was also willing to partner with the district to supply propane dispensers, pumps and tanks free of charge to help reduce the initial conversion costs.
Entering 2024, Blue Bird is the only OEM offering propane school buses through its partnership with Roush CleanTech, that is until the new Cummins engine is available. Albert Burleigh, the vice president of alternative fuels for Blue Bird, shared confidence that Blue Bird can meet the increased demand. He noted that there are several benefits of propane-powered school buses, which are particularly beneficial when transporting students with special needs.
“A quieter cabin allows students to speak at more normal levels instead of screaming over the noise of a diesel-engine,” he shared. “Propane customers have reported that this has led to a calmer environment and better behavior by students on the bus. Also, propane-powered buses are 90 percent cleaner than current U.S. Environmental Protection Agency requirements providing health benefits for the students on the bus and for the communities where they operate.”
Editor’s Note: As reprinted in the January 2024 issue of School Transportation News.
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