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It’s NOT Business as Usual

The constantly changing COVID-19 situation has many businesses laying off employees and altering how they provide services. The student transportation industry is no different.

School transportation consists of more than simply picking up students from school and delivering them home safely.

Continuous, behind-the-scenes work goes into ensuring students are safely transported by certified drivers in vehicles with the safest record during normal school commute hours.

But as school bus drivers sign up for unemployment en masse, due to school closures because of the COVID-19 pandemic, how will continuity of transportation operations be affected, especially once traditional school is back in session? How will school bus drivers remain current in their credentials, with DMV’s closed? Twenty-five states, at least, are extending extensions or waivers for expiring commercial driver’s licenses, learning permits and other requirements, according to a School Transportation News survey. But what happens if students or drivers are too fearful to get back on the bus? What if social distancing guidelines don’t let up?

The questions from student transporters pour in with few answers. While no one knows what the immediate future holds, the three national associations last month joined a webinar presented by Transfinder, to discuss the most important considerations to make once school does start back up and school bus drivers return to the road doing what they do best: transporting students. But smoothly transitioning back to the “new normal” will be a colossal feat.

Pay Attention

Despite the ongoing relief and response efforts of school transporters, one of the largest conversations remains centered around payment of bus drivers as the coronavirus pandemic spreads across the U.S.

A March STN web poll indicated that 38 percent of 783 respondents at school districts or bus companies were not being paid amid the school closures. To put that figure into perspective, it happens to align with estimates provided by the National School Transportation Association (NSTA) that a little over one-third of school busing nationwide is outsourced to a private contractor.

As STN has previously reported, not all school districts are paying their transportation contractors either, amid in-buildings school closures, which in return causes more school bus drivers across the nation to be laid off. Whether a public or private employee, some of these drivers won’t be available to drive routes once school resumes because they left for other districts or the industry altogether. And districts that don’t pay may also be without transportation service, once school resumes.

When thinking in terms of being community first responders, school bus drivers aren’t usually the first people to come to mind. Rather, society thinks of firefighters, police officers, nurses and doctors. But school bus drivers are also on the frontline, risking their personal safety for the well-being of students, and providing services that students need, especially during the coronavirus pandemic.

However, like most of the nation, school transportation operations are divided in the term “essential business” What does it really mean? Who does it apply to?

Operations have interpreted “essential” differently. For example, transportation staff at Palmerton Area School District, located 82 miles North of Philadelphia, is currently collecting unemployment during the “Stay at Home” guideline issued by Gov. Tom Wolf.

The district was waiting for the governor to lift the order, before it returns to full operations. Transportation Manager Danielle George said full-time staff will return to normal working hours to prepare for the upcoming school year, as soon as the governor says it’s safe.

Meanwhile, San Diego Unified School District is offering time-and-a-half hazard pay to staff that is working to support the district’s COVID-19 response. The district is not utilizing bus drivers to deliver the meals, as many districts are doing. Instead, transportation employees are working at food distribution sites during the week, where they are coming into contact with other employees and school families.

A plan proposed by congressional Democrats as part of a fourth federal stimulus package, the “Heroes Fund,” aims to provide premium pay for frontline workers for long hours spent in hazardous conditions during the ongoing COVID-19 response. It would provide a $25,000 pay increase, equivalent to a $13 an hour raise, retroactive to the start of the public health emergency on Jan. 27 and in place until the end of the year. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer intimated that transportation workers, and thus school bus drivers, might apply.

Curt Macysyn, executive director of the NSTA, told School Transportation News that the organization “is going to make a push for school bus drivers to be included” in the proposal.

However, NTSA’s Macysyn has repeatedly said that funding is already allocated to school transportation departments for the 2019-2020 school year, and the contract should still be honored as if the coronavirus had never happened.

H.R. 748, the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, provides $2.2 trillion in federal economic aid in response to the COVID-19 outbreak. It includes a condition pushed by NSTA that school districts nationwide must continue to pay its employees and contractors during school closures in order to receive the funds. However, some contractors still aren’t being paid.

Tina Spence, director of compliance and pupil transportation at the Oklahoma State Department of Education, said that all school district employees in the state are being paid at this time.

“If districts [do not] pay their certified and non-certified staff during this critical time, they risk a higher number of unfilled positions in the 2020-2021 school year,” Spence said. “This would [create] more difficulties to ensuring students are transported to and from school.”

But she noted that districts that contract out their transportation need to renegotiate their contracts with bus companies, adding that state law does not allow school districts to pay for services they have not received. She said that if contracted companies are performing other jobs during this time, districts can pay for those services, per the existing contract. She also said that districts might have to amend their contracts to meet any new duties being performed.

Rerouted Missions

Since President Donald Trump declared a national emergency on March 13, operations across the nation have ceased or altered their provided services. Restaurants have turned to take-out only or delivery options. Sport teams have halted games and practices. And of course schools have closed physical buildings for on-site, in-person learning.

Things appear to be changing by the day, and Americans across the nation have learned to adapt to their own “new normal,” as adults work from home and find strategies to balance homeschooling their children. However, as schools attempt to educate students via online portals and video conference meetings, more equity challenges persist.

According to a survey administered by Education Week last month, school administrators are addressing student equity by offering pick up or delivery of free or reduced-priced meals, Chromebooks and homework packets. While equity is one of the main area’s administrators are attempting to address, the survey also found that the efforts are not necessarily reaching the students who need them.

School transportation operations have alleviated some of those barriers by delivering those resources to students. Transportation operations have shifted gears during this crisis and are pulling together to act as a bridge for community communications. School bus drivers delivering meals is the new normal now, as districts realized that when schools closed, free and reduced lunch students would go hungry without the support of the school cafeteria.

School bus drivers and transportation directors have discussed the importance of meal delivery, as it not only provides students with nutrition but also gives them the opportunity to see a familiar district face. Many drivers have also chosen to work voluntarily on the frontlines despite some districts still paying all of its staff during the closures.

A photo spread of school districts across the country delivering meals to students. Graphic by Maria Molina.

The largest school district in Georgia, Gwinnett Country Public Schools near Atlanta, began delivering meals to students across a 437-square-mile service area. In about a two-week span in March, the district delivered a total of 244,010 meals via the school bus. Through mid-April, Executive Director of Transportation Don Moore said the district was delivering 60,000 meals a day.

Meanwhile, South Bend Community School Corporation in Indiana, is providing students with dinner, in addition to breakfast and lunch.

School bus drivers nationwide are also delivering Chromebooks and homework packets to student’s doors as many students don’t have access to transportation.

Several districts have turned to technology already at their fingertips to alter their services and reroute for more efficient delivery of meals to a greater population. For example, Cody Cox at Community ISD near Dallas used technology the district had already purchased to instantly begin delivering meals to students once schools closed. Cox explained that he used Transfinder technology to reroute its school buses to better assist students in the neighborhood, and he was able to inform the parents through Transfinder’s Infofinder i routing software.

Instead of delivering the supplies to cluster stops, as he said many districts are doing, Cox ensures that school bus drivers are delivering to every neighborhood in the district so that every student is being accounted for.

He also has a mitigation plan in place for if a student or family member contracts the virus and can’t leave their house during the 14 days of required quarantine. In this situation, the district would use a food service van and deliver the meals directly to the student’s doorstep.

Changing its daily delivery operations is only one of the many ways districts and companies are utilizing school buses right now.

In Sheridan, Oregon, Delphian School partnered with Heron Books, which offers free online classes for children and teens in a wide variety of subjects. In a press release from the district, more than 60 classes have already been offered during the first three weeks of its launch and are available for viewing on YouTube.

But, what about the students who don’t have access to the internet?

To ensure every student has access to eLearning, school buses equipped with Wi-Fi routers are parked in locations of poverty or areas with limited internet access, either at apartment complexes or cluster areas that serve a large number of students.

Michael Flood, senior vice president of strategy at Kajeet, a company that provides these Wi-Fi routers, said the location where school buses are parked throughout the day plays a huge roll in both student and staff safety and security. He advised parking school buses in well-lit and spacious parking lots so students can better adhere to social distancing guidelines.

Austin ISD in Texas recently equipped its entire fleet of 534 school buses with Wi-Fi routes from Kajeet. While the order was placed with the help of grant money prior to the pandemic, Flood fast-tracked the order as schools closed. Now students are utilizing the buses to get their work done during the day.

Physical Distancing

Industry professionals have shared that the most important aspect to focus on, despite all the challenges, is to continue to offer support through increased communication. Employers should continue to have conversations with staff and be up front with information.

Flood at Kajeet also discussed the ongoing importance of communication, adding that one of the panelists on a digital equity session he was a part of recently really took issue with the term social distancing.

“He was saying maybe social distancing isn’t the right term, because we are not trying to create distance. We are trying to create community, create closeness.”

Staying connected to both employees and parents during this time is paramount. In March, Transfinder offered Stopfinder, a two-way communication app, free of charge to clients and nonclients through the rest of the school year.

“We believe it’s a critical product, a critical app that [districts] can use to communicate with their parents. And there are a lot of reasons—why are we doing this?” shared Antonio Civitella, president and CEO of Transfinder. “We think that sometimes, if too much time passes without an update, misinformation fills that void. People going on social media, saying things. It creates more panic, that’s why we think that timely and accurate information is more important now than ever.”

Tyler Technologies announced that school districts using Traversa routing software will be able to add Traversa Ride 360 for parent communications to their operations, free of charge for three months, to assist with communications during the coronavirus pandemic.

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

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