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Fulfilling Appetites

When Helena Public Schools first piloted its school bus location app three years ago, Tom Cohn quickly realized that the success of the project would not solely rest on the effectiveness of the technology.

“Twenty-five percent of parents used the app at the get-go,” recalled Cohn, who retires in June after serving as the Montana school district’s transportation manager for more than two decades. “We wanted all parents using it. We thought that was a really good deal … parents are going to eat this up.”

But they didn’t. Why the disconnect?

The transportation department sent a survey that revealed all but 10 parents had smartphones, so that couldn’t be the culprit. What Cohn and his staff soon learned was that simply having an app and advertising it is different than demonstrating it and proactively soliciting download, even when offering parents the ability to see in real time the location of their children’s buses, which seems to be all the rage.

“If you don’t walk them to water, they don’t know how well it works,” he added.

Ever since, and despite COVID-19, Helena Public Schools has realized near-100 percent usage. Ensuring the technology is reliable has been important, but even more vital has been the community outreach and education about the app’s benefits. When parents actually downloaded the app, lo and behold they started using it.

“We have 99 percent of our parents [2,263 registered users] download the app. Now, do 99 percent use it every single day to its fullest advantage? Probably not. But I will tell you we have an exceptionally high rate,” Cohn shared.

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Last summer, parents for the first time had to download the Parent Portal app from Edulog as a prerequisite for signing up their children for school bus service. And for those 10 families that have “dumb” phones, they still needed to come into the office and complete the required forms, Cohn added.

Meanwhile, Cedar Rapids Community Schools in Iowa is in its second year of using the Stopfinder app from Transfinder. Scott Wing, the district’s transportation manager, echoed Cohn that parents need to know the technology exists and then they need to download it to their devices.

“We’ve taken a multiple approach at informing parents that the product even exists,” he noted. “The schools are the point of contact with families, so we’ve really been educating the schools. ‘Hey, encourage the use of Stopfinder. Here are some brochures, here is some material that you can hand out when they are signing up for the bus. Make sure they are downloading the app and are getting that enabled.’ We’ve sent out emails throughout our student information systems and encouraged people to sign up that way.”

It’s still a work in progress for Wing and his team, as 31.5 percent of students and families were using Stopfinder as of this report. Complicating the issue is that, like at many school districts nationwide, Cedar Rapids serves a high number of families that speak a language other than English at home. Wing said the app supports three different languages to help make inroads.

“Communication is key,” said Wing. “You almost have to have a conversation with them and convince them to use it. That’s been one of the biggest barriers for us.”

But he added that those parents that are using the app love it.

Getting Technical

Keeping parents loving apps, is another thing. Apps, any technology, really, are only as good as the data they provide. For starters, student transporters should ensure the routing information that feeds bus location and arrival times is accurate. Both Cohn and Wing indicated that their staff optimized their routing beforehand and worked with their providers to ensure the data was clean. This includes making sure bus stop changes or new students are updated in the system instantaneously.

Helena Public Schools works with Edulog to integrate the routing software with the company’s Parent Portal. Edulog provides a “Lite” version, which simply shows the bus location. Helena Public schools uses “Premium” to allow parents to view the bus on the map as well as view bus stops and arrival times, set geofields to create alerts when the bus is approaching, and track students on and off the bus.

Similarly, Cedar Rapids’ Stopfinder app shows the bus on the map and the location of the stop. Wing said parents or guardians can also set an alert for when the bus enters a certain geofield to trigger a notification that it will be arriving at the stop soon. Cedar Rapids also has the ability to track students through Zonar, but the capability is not yet turned on.

“Every [school] building operates as its own entity,” Wing explained. “To get the RFID card to all 4,500 student riders, we need 31 buildings to print cards and to maintain them. It’s a logistical challenge.”

Parents are also not shy about letting districts or bus companies know when the app is not working like it should. That makes working out the bugs with app providers at the outset vitally important, Cohn advised. But after successful testing, he added that human error is often the culprit, such as when a substitute bus driver forgets to login onto the tablet to turn on the GPS data that shows the bus traveling down the road.

“We have to be vigilant every day to make sure software is running to avoid parent phone calls, and also if the app is not functional, parents will stop using it. In the beginning, quite a bit of work needed to be done,” he said, adding that Edulog representatives worked side by side transportation staff to watch bus routes in real-time and rectify any issues.

“When you’re integrating new technology like this, you really need the developers there to help you get started. I really believe that” Cohn said.

Wing shared that his app had its share of bugs that also needed to be worked out. But the Transfinder team proved to be great partners. “They worked it out and got it running,” he added. From there, the success of school bus apps circles back to frequent communication with and training for parents.

“What we had to do is go through all the stuff with parents, videos on the website to train on how to use the app, review with parents on the phone,” Cohn said. “If you don’t understand the technology, it’s frustrating and parents won’t use it.”

Editor’s Note: As reprinted in the April 2022 issue of School Transportation News.

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