Show-Me State of Technology

School bus apps help students, parents and administrators know exactly where the bus is and when it will arrive.

Student waiting for school bus
School districts and bus companies alike are increasingly turning to parent-facing apps to provide real-time updates on the whereabouts of students and their school buses.

School security is more important now than ever before. Parents want to know where their children are, even when they are in the process of traveling to and from school. New technology is now making this possible. Where available, apps let parents know if their child is on or off the school bus and where the vehicle is located.

The Santee School District near San Diego, California, uses Zonar Z Plus to track its school buses. This app allows school dispatch personnel to see if a student is actually on a bus, and where and when the student boarded or exited via scannable RFID badges.

“We use the Zonar app for tracking buses. We can see where the bus is and how long it will take for the bus to get to its location,” said Charles Myers, director of transportation for the Santee District. “If a mom calls and says my kid is not home, we don’t have to call the sheriff. We can see where the child got off the bus, its location, and what time he or she got off the bus. This is good for us.”

Students wear red ID badges and swipe them against a reader when boarding or deboarding the bus. If they lose the card, they receive the first replacement free of charge but must pay $10 for each replacement.

“When they swipe the pass upon exiting the bus, that means they are home,” said Myers.

Eventually, the district may provide technology that will allow parents to know where their child and the bus are physically located in real-time.

“It is a wonderful thing, but it is expensive,” said Myers. “It works with GPS.”

Because of more concerns about child safety, the app system is being used by more and more districts.

ALC Schools said its ALC Driver App meets the company’s core objectives of ensuring student safety, predictability and reliability, efficiency for school districts, and reporting transparency. The company uses mini-vans that carry one to only a few students at a time, when using a school bus proves to be unfeasible for school districts.

The app provides drivers with the latest student trip information from the routing and optimization team. Student names and addresses, along with trip details, are provided fresh for every trip. Company representatives also said the app provides GPS information about every pickup and drop-off location to drivers.

This, the company added, creates a trail of location breadcrumbs via GPS that are provided in real-time to the dispatch center and to school districts. The exact times are recorded, so that drivers arrive at stops, pick up students and drop them off at their destination. All data goes to the ALC Schools live dispatch center and its My Ride Manager (MRM) tool for districts to access.

“If a student named Susie is sick and did not get on the bus, the school district gets a report showing she was not on the bus,” said Gregg Prettyman, executive vice president of ALC Schools. “If a parent or school district calls us, we can tell them if the student did or did not get on [the driver’s vehicle]. We use the app to track where the students are.”

As a by-product of their disability, students with special needs are usually monitored more closely than their general education peers. For example, a teacher may greet the bus when it arrives at the school.

The ALC Driver app is written to track the location of individual students. “Our app is not an off-the-shelf GPS tracker for vehicles. It is a full-fledged student transportation tracking mechanism,” Prettyman added. “The combination of our driver app plus MRM equals an amazingly detailed profile for each student’s current trips, past trips and future trips. Our app provides pickup and drop-off times for each student, taking into account custom wait times and monitors, plus information regarding no shows for each individual student.”

The ALC App supports the entire student population, including those who live in remote areas that prove to be too expensive to send buses to. ALC’s dispatch, routing and driver support teams are on-station during all hours of student transportation, so they can assist school administrators, parents and drivers.

ALC offers accurate and specific custom pickup and drop-off locations that are updated to allow for changes in traffic flow, construction or individual needs. MRM provides visibility for districts to view the same real-time status, driver and vehicle locations that are available to ALC’s internal dispatch team, said Prettyman.

The ALC My Ride Manager gives districts a holistic view of their transportation. It provides districts with the same tools that the dispatch center uses to see everything in one place. This includes current trips, completed trips and upcoming scheduled trips. It features a comprehensive view of all students and the retrieval of information on a single trip or single student.

There are also integrated maps that allow one to view the location of vehicles, as drivers pick up students and make their way to each destination.

Annie Ellenberger, director of technology at ALC Schools, said users receive updated estimated times of arrival, based on location and traffic. There are details on the day’s drivers, vehicle, model, color and license plate.

Durham School Services, which is based in Illinois, began using the company’s proprietary Bus Tracker app five years ago, so parents will always know where their child’s bus is. Dan Sutherland, general manager of Durham School Services in Algonquin, Illinois, said overall feedback on the app has been positive.

“One of the biggest challenges we have faced is all the phone calls we get from parents when their child’s bus does not arrive,” he explained. “The Bus Tracker app is a way to cut down on traffic in the dispatch office. It gives parents the ability to see where their bus is. They can see the bus is only one minute away, and they don’t tie up lines in the dispatch office. This allows us to keep lines open for more important calls. Parents benefit because they know where their child is.”

App technology is especially helpful for school bus service that is provided to students who have special needs. ALC Schools is based in San Clemente, California, but provides transportation for special needs and homeless students who attend 350 school districts across 18 states.

Elsewhere, Here Comes the Bus is a school bus tracking app from Synovia Solutions, which was acquired earlier this year by a public company, CalAmp, a tech solutions company.

The tracking app is improving morning routines for parents and students, by giving them real-time bus locations and alerts to get them to the bus stop on time. This means no more standing at a bus stop when it is cold and raining or snowing, or in the pre-dawn hours, wondering when the bus will arrive. It also means children have fewer excuses to miss the bus.

A family can download the app, create a secure account, add the name of the student and everything is set. This shows the real-time location of the child’s bus on a map, then gives scheduled and actual arrival times at home for the morning, mid-day and afternoon routes.

It provides push and email alerts when the bus is near or when the bus has been substituted. Alerts are available in English, Spanish and French, according to Here Comes the Bus information.

Also, Here Comes the Bus has achieved some recognition outside of the student transportation industry. It was awarded the IHS Market Innovation Award at the Consumer Electronics Show this past January. The app was considered an example of innovative technology.

“This app provides real-time school bus tracking, and it helps parents understand where the school bus is, so they can make a better decision on when to send the kids out to meet the school bus,” said Bryan Mitchell, spokesperson for Here Comes the Bus. “It works because we put GPS trackers inside every school bus in the districts we serve. This information is given to the parents, so every parent can know where the school bus is.”

Here Comes the Bus serves about 300 districts, and more prospective clients are in the pipeline. Synovia also recently debuted a less costly app version for small districts. “We are working on more innovative products. We want to provide a more safe and convenient bus experience for parents and students,” concluded Mitchell.

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