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Cleaning, Screening and Accountability

Student transporters seek tech solutions to get buses rolling, track COVID-19 infections.

When he analyzed recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) on social distancing and calculated how they would affect passenger capacity on school buses, Josh Crosby realized the new school year would be the strangest he’s experienced.

The director of transportation for Higley Unified School District 60 in Gilbert, Arizona, located just outside of Phoenix, determined that if he and his staff were to follow the CDC guidelines, it would take a fleet of 83 buses roughly nine hours to get the kids to school in the morning and then nine hours to get them home in the afternoon. “That’s not anything that we can do,” added Crosby, who is used to transporting 13,800 students per day.

“Our district, and I know many others, we’re just not able to comply with those CDC recommendations,” he continued. “Our fleet is already running a triple run in the morning and a triple run in the afternoon. Each of our full-size buses will typically have 60 to 65 students on each route and we’re running … three routes starting at 6 a.m. all the way up till 9:30 in the morning. We just don’t have the fleet or the drivers or the time to be able to space our routes out.”

Higley USD had prepared for an in-person reopening but scrapped the plan as the district’s scheduled startup date drew near. The state became a pandemic hotspot. The preparations were merely an exercise on the path to reopening, whenever that occurs. Higley and many other districts in the country have searched for support, and many are finding it in fleet management technology, some of which is already in use. The districts are repurposing some of the applications but also buying add-ons and new technologies that vendors are developing just for the COVID-19 virus.

The Critical Path

There are about 131,000 K-12 schools in the U.S. It’s difficult to say just how many are offering some version of in-person education, though at this writing all but one of the nation’s largest urban school districts are going fully remote. But according to an Education Week survey, of 461 school districts, as shared by the industry’s School Transportation Aligned for Return to School (STARTS) Task Force during a webinar last month, 48 percent are starting the new school year with remote learning only, with most of those being in large cities. About 28 percent are reopening in-person for all students while about 20 percent are offering hybrid models. The remaining 3 percent were undecided. For students to return to school, transporting them is a critical path.

Many school districts already have fleet technology solutions in place to manage routes, bus movements, maintenance, GPS tracking, and other features. Now, schools are repurposing the applications where they can. But the solution providers are also adding on features specifically to deal with the new coronavirus. These features seem to fall in line with cleaning, screening, and accountability, all of which align as close as they can to CDC guidelines and contact tracing efforts. This is a preemptive measure.

If schools reopen for in-person instruction, or even a hybrid of in-person and virtual classes, transporting students can be made safer. If a school is not reopening for in-person instruction at all, and they repurpose their existing fleet technology or adopt new, they’ll be better prepared to manage the fragility of transporting students when things approach a new normal.

Leveraging Existing Technology With Some Add-Ons

CalAmp’s Synovia Solutions currently delivers GPS-powered fleet intelligence systems. Pre-trip applications include a comprehensive checklist of anything needed to monitor the inside of a school bus daily. Exterior pre-trip is a checklist for everything exterior to the bus, including lights, tires, mirrors and safety devices.

“We’ve been using the Synovia products for several years now and doing the student tracking for probably three years,” shared Crosby at Higley USD. “I think this will be our fourth year. All our students have a bus pass or a school ID, or they use their cellphone to scan on and off the bus. We’re planning to continue that this year once school learning resumes.”

To address contact tracing needs arising from the pandemic, CalAmp introduced Bus Guardian over the summer to instantaneously provide bus ridership verification of both drivers and students. This becomes quite useful if a student or driver becomes ill. It also provides a hygiene verification system to help administrators monitor and report on real-time sanitization efforts.

Elisa Schubert is the manager for the Elco and Cornwall-Lebanon Divisions of Brightbill Transportation, a private and full-service student transportation contractor. Brightbill uses Bus Guardian for morning pre-trips as well as driver time and attendance.

“When the drivers do the pre-trip, if all things are good and working properly, all they need to do is submit the report,” said Schubert. “They will get a notice [asking if] they are sure they want to send this report. This allows them to take a moment and make sure that they have reported everything correctly because once they send the report, they are verifying that they did this.”

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Crosby noted that his district is also incorporating the use of tablets that are already installed fleetwide. “One thing that we’re going to be doing with that is adding a section to the post-trip for the driver to log every time the bus is sanitized and cleaned,” he explained. “Our goal in our district is to sanitize the bus after every group of students. When the bus empties out every time, the bus will be sanitized before the next route. We’re going to be logging that, so we’ll be able to see who sanitized it and at what time.”

Zonar, which also provides fleet technology solutions for school buses, recently announced its “COVID-19 Return to School Safety Solutions,” a suite of dedicated compliance resources and configurable software solutions designed to establish new COVID-19 safety protocols for school bus drivers, students and fleet managers when schools return to in-person learning. The company designed the solutions to help fleet managers and drivers address student tracking, verify sanitization of buses, and aid in contact tracing.

David Benson, transportation director for Chesapeake Public Schools in Virginia, said his district has used and will continue to use Zonar to monitor buses. However, the district plans to reconfigure the application to help assist with the reutilization of buses during COVID-19 and develop an inspection protocol that will allow staff to collect screening data for each of his drivers daily.

“While we are going to begin the year virtually, we do plan to monitor the COVID-19 situation and return to face-to-face instruction as soon as it is deemed safe to do so,” said Benson. “We are planning to socially distance students on the bus by having only one student per seat and requiring face masks or coverings for all passengers. Additionally, we are also planning to sanitize all our buses between a.m. and p.m. routes. Drivers will also be provided with sanitizer to be used on high-frequency touched areas.”

Cypress-Fairbanks ISD located outside of Houston has used Zonar to provide student ridership information and engine diagnostic data. Cy-Fair, the third-largest school district in Texas, planned at this report to open for both on-campus and remote instruction. Transportation will be available to students who register for physical classes. The department plans to repurpose the Zonar application for COVID-19 purposes of cleaning, screening and accountability.

Kayne Smith, director of transportation for the district, said students must wear a face mask while on the bus. A disposable mask will be provided in the morning, if a student does not have one. They must sanitize their hands upon entering the bus, and when feasible and weather permitting windows and roof vents will be opened to allow for additional airflow and ventilation throughout buses.

Drivers will also spray disinfecting solution and wipe down seats, handrails and high-touch areas after each run or as frequently as possible. In addition, buses and vehicles will be fogged with disinfecting solution following afternoon routes.

“CFISD purchased the [Zonar] system in 2015 and has been successful with the program since that time,” said Smith. “Each school bus is equipped with a card reader. As students enter and exit the bus, they swipe their student ID in front of the card reader. The system then records the time, date and location of entry or exit. This data is transmitted to a secure database only accessible to Cy-Fair staff and transportation officials. Parents have the option to sign up to receive notifications when their child gets on or off the bus. The multipurpose student ID cards have also been bar-coded for students to quickly access their food service accounts for breakfast/lunch and for checking out books in the library.”

Treker, another fleet technology platform, added features to help school districts during the pandemic by creating “Ahead of the Curve,” a variation of the company’s existing technology geared to the needs of contact tracing and screening to get fleets prepared for when they are used again.

“We spent quite a bit of time and resources developing new features that would help schools open more safely in the fall,” said Gina McDuffie, president of Treker. “Within our Ahead of the Curve initiative is a contact tracing report, so admins can easily and quickly run a report to identify any students who may have been exposed to a child who tested positive for COVID-19.”

The solution includes facial recognition for a completely touchless check-in, when boarding the bus and for student tracking. Plus, the Health Pass app allows parents to track and share their child’s current health condition with school officials.

Meanwhile, Safe Fleet rolled out contact tracing last month. Justin Malcolm, the company’s director of product management, said it is a by-product of existing and integrated on-board video, vehicle and student tracking, routing information, and parent notifications. “The thing that makes us a little bit different is most suppliers are in one of three camps: GPS/AVL, routing and video,” he explained. “We are in all three of those. We are hoping to pull those things together in a more robust way.”

Editor’s Note: As reprinted from the September issue of School Transportation News. 

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