Those who have played sports or performed on stage know that it’s normal to anticipate the next move. For instance, the second baseman must be mentally already prepared for where to throw the ball depending on how many people are on base and where.
Rick D’Errico, public relations director for routing software company Transfinder, alluded to these types of situations as school districts around the country prepare contingency plans in response to the constantly changing COVID-19 situation.
“You don’t want to be thinking about it when the ball is coming at you,” D’Errico explained.
Instead, by planning for those “what-if” scenarios now, school districts and bus companies can better prepare themselves than their counterparts who are waiting for direction or guidance, he noted.
“Our system was built for what-if scenarios,” commented Antonio Civitella, president and CEO of Transfinder.
He added that when clients first buy their software, they often implement the exact routes they have been using. However, he pointed out, then they can start making copies. Civitella explained that they can keep the live version but start performing other scenarios behind the scenes, which can be saved in the software’s back end.
He advised that now is the time to plan new routes and to tweak any variables until transportation directors feel good about the outcomes. These scenarios can help with finding savings, and efficiencies, he noted.
“What if I have kids walk a little more, or maybe have group stops instead of door-to-door [pickups]? Or what if I change my bell time? How does it save my vehicles?” he asked. “Can I provide the same amount of service, with minimal impact, but also with [fewer] resources?”
With the planning stages of transporting students post-COVID-19 having transportation directors on their heels, and schools reopening sooner rather than later, supervisors need to be able to create what-if scenarios almost immediately. Civitella explained that by using Transfinder, the process could take a couple of days at most.
“We always believe that a routing system is at the center of a transportation department,” Civitella shared. “Because the routing system is able to have all this data for parent apps, for GPS, for all these requirements. And we always believed that routing is what mattered, that it’s at the center. But now, it really is. It’s even more at the center now because it creates all the data.”
Derek Graham, a consultant to Education Logistics (Edulog), noted that having routing software already puts districts ahead of the game when planning for the next 2020-2021 school year.
“One of the reasons that you have routing software is to be able to do simulations and know the answers before you jump in,” Graham explained. “The last thing you want to do is implement some major plan, whether it has to do with [COVID-19], whether it is a school district thing, or bell times. The last thing you want to do is implement something, thinking you are going to save money, only to find out, no it is not really feasible. So, that’s the beauty of using software to do all the planning.”
Andy Leibenguth, a senior consultant to Edulog, noted that the company’s routing software allows districts to create snapshot data points, which can be utilized to run optimization scenarios to see what the overall impact is.
“The key component is the data you have available in the system, how accurate it is, and how representative it is of your actual transportation system currently,” Leibenguth explained. “And then being able to quickly take a snapshot of that information, run scenarios through to see what the impact of ‘what if’ would be through utilizing our optimization algorithm as well as route optimization.”
Graham added that the passenger capacity of the bus is one of the first things that should be defined when setting up routes. With social distancing guidelines, he said a bus might only be able to transport a maximum of 24 students.
“Where do the extra number of buses and drivers come from? How early can you get kids [to school] so that you can double back and pick up more, and then double back and pick up more [students]?” Graham questioned. “But all of those are routing questions you can address and stimulate in the software. You just might not like the answers you get.”
Ted Thien, vice president and general manager for Tyler Technologies, said Versatrans software is designed to be extremely flexible, and users can manage multiple addresses and different days of the week for students.
“Most importantly, [clients] can modify student records, runs and other information in unlimited what-if scenarios without affecting what’s happening in the live environment,” Thien explained. “Whether districts need creative routing or a sandbox to test ideas, our products give them the power to plan and react to this evolving crisis.”
He also noted that social distancing will dictate the number of students on a bus. Many districts are talking about placing one student in every other seat, similar to the guidance issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention last week.
“When you factor in everything else transportation departments have to consider — multiple addresses for one student, daycare drop-offs, transfer locations, driver callouts, breakdowns, parent requests — social distancing adds a very complicated logistical layer,” Thein said. “Luckily, transportation departments are filled with people who’ve mastered the art of putting a complex puzzle together, and then fixing that puzzle when things inevitably change each day.”
What Some Districts are Considering with Routing
Greg Jackson, director of transportation and fleet services at Jeffco Public Schools near Denver, has been creating what-if scenarios for post-COVID-19 transportation since the beginning of May. He noted that his district is looking at splitting up certain grade levels by transporting them on different days or by offering morning and afternoon shifts.
“We are looking at some of these different options, just trying to find what will fit,” Jackson explained. “We are in that ‘what-if’ world right now, until we know what our budget is going to be.”
He explained that with the continued social distancing guidelines, a 1,000 square-foot classroom is going to hold around 15 to20 students, which could create challenges with transportation.
“Part of the whole thing is trying to identify how we do it and we do it to strategize how we do it,” Jackson said. “My routers are like, ‘Really? We have to make this happen?’ I said, ‘It’s the new norm, people. We need to look at everything we have.’”
He shared that his router has created four databases using the district’s Transfinder software to house the different routing scenarios.
He said one of the possible routing scenarios Jeffco is considering is corridor busing, instead of the standard neighborhood busing it has currently. The new version would consist of centralized stops that the buses would meet the students at, and then shuttle them to school and back.
He explained that one thing that he didn’t consider until recently was that if he continued with the neighborhood routes, he would also have to ensure social distancing at bus stops.
“For your special education students, does that student now have to stay inside their home until the bus pulls up? Now, the driver has to give the kid a minute to come from the home to the bus,” he shared. “Then, at a general education stop, do you have to have one student boarding the bus at a time because they can’t cluster on.”
To get a better understanding of how many students he would be required to transport for the next school year, he is sending out an “opt-in” and “opt-out” survey to parents to learn who is still comfortable with sending their students on a bus in the fall.
Another Colorado director of transportation, Lisa Casey at Summit School District, shared that she is also looking at the school bus as a shuttle service. But there are many other ideas being considered as well.
“We have a whole list of things, either starting school earlier or making it last longer. We have thought about going in different pod cycles, changing bell times, and altering who goes in [which school entrances],” Casey explained. “Do we transport groups of families because they are living together? There might be some structure of being able to have [families] be closer together and get them on a bus. Anything that we could practically think of to come up with so that we can get these kids in some sort of learning environment.”
She continued that magnet stops and shuttle busing are looking to be the most feasible solutions for their district, as parents can bring their kids there and transportation employees can monitor the stop and spread the kids out. This will also allow them to health check each student prior to them boarding.
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Meanwhile, some transportation directors are relying on the reduced capacity in the school buildings to assist with transportation requirements.
Keith Haggerty, maintenance and transportation director for Troy Public Schools located near the border with Idaho, said his district has considered breaking the school up into two groups that would attend on two different days, group one would be those that ride the school bus, and group two would be those that don’t.
“We only have five actual bus routes during the morning and afternoon, and we have two extra buses, so our longer routes we would actually use two more buses on those routes to split up the ridership per bus, to reduce the riders,” Haggerty explained, adding that he would keep families together.
Tom Burr, transportation director at Saint Paul Public Schools in Minnesota, has taken a similar approach. He said while his bus capacity will be reduced due to social distancing. The routing will be “naturally relational” to what is happening in the school buildings.
He explained that if buildings are reducing capacity or alternating schedules based on the days of the week, the school bus routes would naturally decrease based on the schedules. He said that he envisions running his routes as they currently are set up and doing his standard bus stop pick-ups, only with a decreased number of riders.
COVID-19 as a Learning Lesson
The software routing companies agreed that districts should use this time to evaluate their data and assess their routes.
Civitella added that he hopes transportation directors use this opportunity to change things for the better and to continue to contingency planning going forward.
“I hope that the takeaway is we should do what-if scenarios more often,” Civitella said. “Maybe once a year, maybe every couple of years, see what happens. … What if we stagger some bell times? What if you pick up the kids differently? What if we analyze the eligibility? What if we required parents to register their students for transportation?”
He added that because their new product released in April, Route Finder Plus is completely browser-based, people can access it from their homes, during the pandemic. But it also could be useful in a circumstance of flooding or tornado warnings when directors can’t get to the office, but the buses need to be utilized for emergency evacuations.
Graham with Edulog noted that pandemic or not, school districts should be using routing software to help them maintain a more organized operation, with all the data at their fingertips.
“Step one is to make sure you have data that is in good shape,” Graham said. “If you have data that is in good shape that is reflecting what you are currently doing, and you have students assigned to stops, and you know which stops need transportation and all those sorts of things. It makes it much easier to respond, whether you are changing bell times, bus capacities. At least you know who needs what service. So, that is really priority one, is knowing/having your data in shape, and having it reflect what you are currently doing.”
He continued, “Step two is using those tools and knowing how to use those tools to respond to different inquiries, providing the data that is needed to decision-makers, so that they realize the impact of new policies. And so, if you are able to that, then transportation all the sudden has a seat at the table.”
Thein with Tyler Technologies agreed, adding it’s all about the data.
“If you can create a few different scenarios easily and share the results in a data-driven way, you can position yourself to argue for more what you need such as buses, additional bell times, or adding extra time for cleaning the bus. If you can present the data, you can shape the decision-making process. That’s empowering,” he said.