With schools facing increasing costs due to COVID-19, transportation directors need to provide accurate data for a positive impact on transportation budgets. Key performance indicators (KPI’s) have long been used to evaluate efficiency and areas where improvement is needed, but they may play an even more vital role during the pandemic. Having a handle on KPI’s, some of which may differ than those used before the pandemic, could be an asset in meeting the ever-changing rules of transporting students in the COVID-19 landscape.
Tim Ammon, co-owner of Decision Support Group and a co-manager of the industry’s School Transportation Aligned for Return to School (STARTS) Task Force, noted that what was deemed vital data last year at this time or even seven months ago may no longer be relevant.
“Things are changing too fast. We need to use data to understand our operation, but I don’t know if it’s going to be important to measure [passenger] capacity for the next eight months,” he opined during a STARTS Task Force webinar last month. Instead, he suggested that operations must ask themselves what information they need to be much more aware of and how they can utilize data to make their service plans as flexible as possible amid all of the uncertainty.
Using Data For Traditional & New Challenges
Andy Madura, the director of transportation for Lake Region Schools in Bridgton, Maine, said one of his main KPI challenges this school year is keeping his operation fully staffed, although the number of positive COVID-19 cases in Maine remaining low.
He has been keeping in touch with his entire staff throughout the summer, hosting discussions, addressing concerns, and keeping everyone updated on the guidelines both the state and district are developing.
“We’re being transparent and honest about what we can and can’t do as far as the CDC and health department guidelines,” he said. “The drivers have been practicing driving with face shields and other safety equipment so they are as prepared as possible for when school starts.”
Meanwhile, last spring, the Salem-Keizer school board in Oregon implemented a transportation investment package, which approved funding for another transportation site and the purchase of 195 new buses over a three and a half year period. A study also compared the district’s pay rate for drivers and mechanics to other neighboring school districts and the local transit authority. “We used our database of information to get raises for most of our staff this year,” said Michael Shields, who recently retired as transportation director.
Still, traditional KPI’s are at play. Madura employs 40 drivers for 30 routes in the mainly rural district. Since it can take up to a half-hour to get to some students’ home, Madura has purchased more buses.
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“We had a dealer nearby with buses on the lot which we were able to obtain,” he explained. “We have the summer to get them ready, and we’ll need them if the superintendent’s plan to transport our elementary and special needs students to school five days a week can be implemented.”
He said he looks at KPI data all the time to help forecast mileage and other expenses. “With social distancing on the horizon, we’re very conscious of the actual number of seats being used,” he explained. “We use Transfinder and had been using it even before the state [department of education] bought the program for every district. We knew our actual load counts before school ended in March. Based on our policies here, we had 110-percent capacities on many buses, because students were free to go bus to bus, and many only rode occasionally.”
Madura took those numbers and averaged them with the seats needed if every student rode the bus this coming fall. “We’re going with the worst-case scenario of having to get every student to school every day,” he added. “We’ve also sent out a survey. We need clear communication from parents on who is planning on riding the bus, but there will be parents who after a week or so of driving their child will step out from the curb and expect their child to be able to board.”
He said the solution is not perfect, as COVID-19 has introduced or highlighted many inequalities. “I feel bad for all of the kiddos. From the social and emotional side of things, they need to get back in the classroom, and most of our staff is eager to get back to work,” Madura said. “We just have to learn to work with [COVID-19.]”
GP Singh, founder of the Chicago-based school bus analytics company ByteCurve, stressed the need for still keeping accurate data. “Routes are going to change to accommodate social distancing,” he said. “That combined with the fact that many drivers might not be returning means that there will be a large learning curve, especially if half of the students attend school in the morning and half in the afternoon. This means more fuel, more miles, more maintenance.”
Singh pointed out that the transportation managers who have already adopted technology to manage daily operations will be much better equipped to handle these changes than those who haven’t.
Shields agreed. “There are things that can be done using KPIs that are very useful in moving forward. For routing, it’s always been important to track driver hours, miles traveled, bell times, and fuel used, but now districts are going to transport many fewer children per route. All of these numbers are going to change.”
He suggested that student transporters start with the most simple items that they are likely already tracking.
“For instance, in the shop, how many work orders are completed or outstanding? Are the preventative maintenance inspections completed? Try to adjust the shop’s work schedules to comply with social distancing,” he said.
Shields advised industry leaders who don’t already have routing technology to use the pandemic as an opportunity to evaluate various systems, and to purchase a routing system that works for them. “Look at everything available, not just the ones doing all of the advertising. If you have a 12-bus operation, you may not need a complex system,” he advised.
Editor’s Note: As reprinted from the September issue of School Transportation News.