I Can See You, Now

Parent apps provide school bus transparency, peace of mind

Safety Trainer Reggie Payton, left, and Dispatcher Mike Gay of Midlothian ISD in Texas, discuss student tracking and bus routes using the SMART tag system.

When Winter Storm Avery struck New York City last November, the flurries weren’t strictly snow and ice. The storm immobilized traffic, including thousands of school buses on afternoon routes, thus spurring angry parents, activists and city officials, to take action.

Some children were stuck on the bus until midnight, and frantic parents were left with no way to find out where those school buses were. In response, city officials moved quickly to write and pass a new bill. In January, New York City Council members passed a new law to give parents some peace of mind regarding their child’s whereabouts and arrival times of buses.

Nearly 130,000 children who are in kindergarten through fifth grade rely on one of New York City’s 9,500 school buses to get to and from school, daily. The Student Transportation Oversight Package (STOP) promises parents of these children the ability to know where the bus is via a free smartphone app. The New York City Department of Education said it plans to implement it by the start of next school year.

Up until the City Council’s bill passage, only about 6,000 buses that serve students with special needs were equipped with GPS. The technology will eventually extend wide, with a bid expected to open this spring.

Additionally, the New York City Department of Education will be required to send notices of late bus arrivals and departures on a daily basis.

“Families deserve safe and reliable school transportation, which is why we’re placing GPS on all buses in the 2019-2020 school year,” said Miranda Barbot, a spokeswoman with the city’s Office of Pupil Transportation. “We have GPS through a device called NavMan on all special education buses, as well as two-way radio communications with all buses. We look forward to (our) continued partnership with families and schools as we make improvements to our school bus system.”

Reggie Payton checks the real-time location of Midlothian ISD’s school buses via a parent notification app.

Apps Can Bridge Gaps

While it’s true that many forms of online technology are accused of isolating people, a good parent app can actually bridge communication gaps between bus drivers, students, parents and the school.

“One terrific thing that came along with having the parent app is that it helps our drivers really know their students,” said Craig Pelletier, the computer routing technician for Midlothian Independent School District in Texas. “It is also building a [better] relationship between the transportation department and the parents, because the parents have a better idea of what’s going on.”

Midlothian has 70 buses that are equipped with the SMART tag Parent Portal app, which is compatible with the Versatrans Routing System from Tyler Technologies. The district has 9,400 students in the 110-square mile area south of Dallas/Fort Worth.

“We call it student ridership or student accountability. It is not a tracking system,” he stressed. “Our parents balked at the idea of their children being tracked. We assured them that the school doesn’t know where the student goes after they get off the bus.”

The Parent Portal app has increased accuracy and efficiency. At any time, Pelletier said he has information at the touch of a button, such as recently when the program told him that 143 of the 1,092 students who ride the district’s 42 buses weren’t wearing their student ID badges. The driver can manually add them or subtract students from the onboard count if they don’t use a badge. State head counts and ridership information are more accurate than relying on a driver to tally students boarding the bus.

Parent Portal is a free app for parents to download. A message is sent when the bus is 10 to 15 minutes out from a stop. If there is a problem with the bus, or the driver must detour after the message is sent, a phone call is initiated.

“Despite not operating in real-time yet, the system had all of the (other) features that I wanted,” Pelletier said. “All my reports are done for me. If a bus is running late, I can notify those parents, even if they aren’t signed up for Parent Portal, because their email has been pulled in from the school’s data base.”

He explained that his department can send a mass email to the parents of specific vehicles, which comes in handy if there has been a crash. “We can notify the parents and tell them that their child is fine and ask them to please not go to the scene,” he added. “There are fewer phone calls asking where the bus is, because there is also a bus locator that parents can turn on with their personal login.”

In Michigan, the integration of Zonar GPS with the SafeStop app helps hundreds of families in the Huron Valley School District stay informed about their children’s bus rides. The district already had GPS on its fleet, which covers 100 square miles of rural territory, including gravel roads. Then there are the challenging weather conditions of Michigan winters. Of the 9,000 students who are enrolled, about half are bus riders.

District spokeswoman Kim Root said Huron Valley is pleased with the acceptance of the free app. “In two weeks, we had over 600 families sign up,” she noted. “The local news did a story on it, which really got the ball rolling. Plus, we are continuing to let our families know about SafeStop, by spreading the word on our list serve and social media channels. The families that have it are very happy to have peace of mind for their child’s bus ride.”
She called SafeStop “a tremendous tool” that allows the district to send specialized messages if a bus is late, due to weather, traffic conditions or other issues.

“Communicating in real-time has cut down significantly on phone calls to the transportation office, allowing our staff to attend to other duties,” she added. “There were a few glitches, such as the GPS showing one bus 30-miles away, but the SafeStop team resolved those problems quickly.”

Real-Time, Real Problems Solved

In a world brimming with technology, Synovia’s Here Comes The Bus software was a winner at the popular Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas earlier this year. “Here Comes The Bus won the IHS Markit Innovation Award at CES 2019, because our app delivers real-time school bus tracking,” said company spokesman Bryan Mitchell. “The judges realized that while the competition, like LG and Samsung, had some amazing products, ours actually solved the problem of parents not knowing where the school bus was.”

The company is also working on a “lite” version that is designed specifically for rural and underserved districts. The company announced it will be available later this year. “We wanted to provide a solution to districts that didn’t have routing software,” Mitchell added.

Janet Petrisin, director of transportation for the Metropolitan School District of Wayne Township near Indianapolis, said she is very happy with the district’s decision to use Here Comes The Bus. “The system refreshes every 30 seconds and works very well with our Transfinder Routing System, so it’s a very accurate data tool. I’m getting a lot of positive feedback from parents, especially the parents of kindergarten students,” said Petrisin. “We won’t let a kindergarten student off the bus without a parent at the bus stop, so the app has been a very positive experience for them. The other group that uses it the most are high school students, who wait until the last minute to go to the bus stop.”

She added that some parents even call the district if they see that a bus has taken a different road or is running late. “They are really paying attention,” Petrisin said. “We explain that sometimes there is traffic, an accident or road construction and the bus had to take a detour.”

Petrisin encouraged other districts to do their homework and make sure the systems they purchase work well together.

Editor’s Note: Reprinted from the April 2019 issue of School Transportation News.