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Who’s On the Bus?

School districts are finding the links between increased cleaning, contact tracing and checking for students at the end of routes

Pupil accountability is one of the greatest responsibilities of a school district. It is a key concern, as the whereabouts of students of all ages is a fragile issue, and it’s something parents as well as school leadership are always dedicated to solving.

Accountability becomes even more important during a pandemic, especially with regard to contact tracing efforts, which is one of five operational strategies urged by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for the safe reopening schools-and keeping them open.

Many school districts already have policies in place that direct bus drivers to conduct a check for students still on board at the completion of routes. Transportation departments have tightened their policies centered on student accountability, and when possible, they are using new and existing technology to assist this effort.

Such accountability ties into the new normal of drivers cleaning and disinfecting their vehicles between runs and at the end of the day. Drivers log their cleaning when completed, and at the same time check for any students who may have missed their stop or fell asleep. By drivers cleaning, performing walk-throughs, and recording their actions, it also provides them opportunity to report any missing students and use any available technology to help them better manage their routines.

Isy Gabriela Conde is the managing director of operations at KIPP Texas Public Schools, which operate charter schools in Austin, Dallas-Fort Worth, Houston, and San Antonio. She said COVID-19 response policies established with bus vendors and school dispatch teams require bus seating charts be kept and rosters remain up-to-date for every ride. Like at most districts, KIPP instituted a strict policy of no student left behind on the bus.

“We currently can state with confidence that no [child] has been left on a school bus,” said Conde. “We also count [students] with an on-bus live camera system that allows for footage review, once a positive COVID-19 case has been confirmed from a bus rider or driver. The ability to review footage allows for KIPP Texas to make the appropriate determination of close contacts to further protect our students and drivers.”

Approaching Student Whereabouts Incrementally

Atlanta Public Schools recently acquired the “Here Comes the Bus” app from CalAmp’s Synovia Brand. Parents may download it for free to monitor the real-time whereabouts and arrival time of their children’s school bus. The district also received tablets that work with the application via GPS.

Presently, Atlanta Public Schools uses Here Comes the Bus to stay apprised of bus arrivals and track their movements. The information is shared with parents so they, too, will know when the bus is due to arrive, depart and its whereabouts at any time. The route assigned to a specific bus may be transferred to another bus and the data is seamlessly shared with the appropriate vehicle. When a driver switches buses but is driving the same route as they did on the previous vehicle, the route data also transfers.

Atlanta’s application also includes cleaning checklists, where drivers log their trip cleaning and disinfecting upon completion. While Here Comes the Bus has the capability of providing specific accountability, Atlanta has yet to use that function. Still, value is evident.

“There’s actually a time and attendance element of this,” shared John Franklin, the executive director of transportation for Atlanta Public Schools. “There’s still some more blanks to fill in related to the project. But there’s another element that we’re taking a gradual modified approach to, not just throwing it all out there at once.”

Franklin said there are many things to consider when using such an application for accountability, as it may require more effort in using identification cards, tags, and equipment. Atlanta’s current adoption is a first step. Subsequent incremental steps may be added in the future to boost accountability.

“It is part of our longterm future and immediate future,” he added. “There are some things that you have to think about with issuing kids ID cards, proximity readers, and things like that. We would want to test that out, budget for it, and then launch it. But the need is there.”

Related: Roundup: Students in Kentucky, Texas Left Unattended on School Buses
Related: Is Cleaning School Buses as Easy as Flipping a Switch?
Related: Bus Tracking Apps Should Anticipate Parental Needs
Related: Arkansas Preschooler Left Alone on School Bus
Related: Atlanta Public Schools Adopts CalAmp’s School Bus Tracking Technology to Improve Student Transportation Experience

Franklin noted that the pandemic has punctuated the need. Atlanta is now approaching implementation of the Synovia application in stages. However, Franklin said he believes that the accuracy of a student carrying an ID badge and taking attendance when a student walks through a proximity reader is a superior way of providing accurate and granular accountability. Such accountability may not only help with contact tracing but also provide excellent accountability of students—during a pandemic, or at any time thereafter.

Similar to Atlanta’s approach, Beaumont Independent School District in Texas has technology in place but has yet to use it for contact tracing efforts.

“Each driver disinfects their bus after each tier of students are dropped off at their respective campus,” explained Todd Coleman, the senior director of transportation. “Based on this practice, no student from a previous tier will remain on the bus.”

Beaumont presently uses SMARTtag for bus ridership tracking only. “Using the technology for contact tracing is something that the district is looking into,” Coleman added, noting that there is a parent portal to the tracking technology that the district uses.

No Child Left Behind … On The Bus

Aside from technology, school leaders are leaning on practical policy to govern where students sit and how they are accounted. Such policies are intertwined with procedures for cleaning and disinfecting by the drivers.

Students left behind on the bus? It happens, but it shouldn’t.

As the pandemic came into full swing last spring, a Seminole County elementary school student in Sanford, Florida, didn’t get off the bus. The student was later found at the school bus storage facility by another driver.

In September, a young student fell asleep on a Vigo County school bus in Indiana and was left alone for most of the day. Then, in November, a 4-year-old student in Coweta County, Georgia, fell asleep on a school bus and ended up alone on a neighborhood street.

Disinfection and more thorough cleaning may be a newer practice, but such a procedure is an opportune time for drivers to deliberately ensure no students fell asleep or for whatever other reason did not get off the bus.

“We are cautious not to replace bus drivers and monitors, not changing them or the bus for the specific route,” explained Kathleen Bodie, the superintendent of Arlington Public Schools, which serves a northwest suburb of Boston. “Students are assigned by names to specific seats. Occupancy is at approximately 25 percent. We run some routes more than once for this reason, disinfect between each run. Before the drivers leave the bus at the end of the day, they must walk the length of the bus to press the childcheck button, then go back to their seat to continue to secure the bus, turn it off, sweep the bus, disinfect the bus.”

Meanwhile, Austin Independent School District in Texas requires bus drivers to perform an empty seat procedure after every run, to ensure no students are still on board.

“The driver does an actual walk-through of the bus at the end of each trip, looking under the seat and places an empty sign on the rear exit window, indicating that the check has been performed,” relayed Kris Hafezizadeh, the executive director of transportation and vehicle services. “Once a driver has completed their route, they do perform a thorough cleaning of the bus as well as on a daily basis. All buses are also sprayed with a disinfecting chemical.”

For many school districts, policies regarding accountability aren’t necessarily new, but greater sanitation actions are. For many if not most districts, existing policies for a post-trip check is modified to incorporate these increased sanitation measures as well as an accountability check.

“We have not created new policies. We will have new protocols regarding using hand sanitizer when students enter and exit the bus, seating charts, required face coverings, and cleaning/sanitizing of the buses between routes,” said Lori Blakeslee, a spokeswoman for Green Bay Area Public School District in Wisconsin. “We have very clear protocols and processes, where at the end of each route bus drivers must turn off an alarm at the back of the bus, this provides a process for bus drivers to ensure there are no students remaining on the bus (potentially asleep in seats). Any students who are still on the bus at the end of the route, because they could not be dropped off at home (this comes into play if it is a young learner or special ed student where the child must be left with an adult), the student is delivered to the district office.”

Editor’s Note: As reprinted in the March 2021 issue of School Transportation News. 


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