Any list of challenges created by COVID-19 would be a long one. But some good things have grown out of the experiences gained in coping with the pandemic. For many school districts, one of those positive developments has been a greater focus on the routine use of bus seating charts. Assigning seats is not a new practice, as some districts have been taking this approach for years. For others, though, what became necessary to avoid the spread of an infectious disease is now seen as an advantageous strategy for a calmer school bus environment.
“Seating arrangements can be used to make riders feel at ease and as positive rewards for good behavior,” noted transportation consultant Launi Schmutz-Harden. “Everyone likes to know they have a seat and where it is ahead of time.”
The consultant, who retired as director of transportation for Washington County School District in southwest Utah just prior to the pandemic, added that students do best with a daily routine and feel more secure and comfortable when they know where to sit. With that in mind, school bus drivers can reward positive behavior by assigning students to sit with friends or in areas they otherwise prefer. But more importantly, the practice can be especially helpful in times of emergencies.
At Oregon’s Beaverton School District, the pandemic became the catalyst for requiring drivers to use seating charts, explained Craig Beaver, administrator for transportation.
“We instituted them to aid with student identification and cohorting with much success,” he said. “While we did not require seating charts this year, we strongly encouraged drivers to chart their elementary students.” About one-third of the district’s drivers have continued the practice, finding it has been helpful in getting to know their students. Charts have also aided drivers in determining which students assigned to the route are not utilizing the service. “Sometimes this allows us to remove a stop or adjust routing to relieve overcrowding on another route,” Beaver added.
A similar direction was taken by Sweetwater County School District in Green River, Wyoming. Before the pandemic, seating assignments were standard only for elementary students, but that has changed.
“We were starting the practice of using them for the older students, and then COVID made it so that we could enforce it more regularly,” recalled Rachel Todd, the transportation supervisor. “We will continue the practice of seating charts for not only routes but also over-the-road trips.”
Todd said the practice has significantly helped in managing student behavior. Her drivers start with letting students pick their assigned seats, within pre-set parameters. But if they don’t follow the bus rules, they are moved to a “hot” seat.
The details on charts can also help with following up on incidents, such as identifying the guilty party when a seat has been vandalized or locating a lost book bag or another item. They may also prove timely in the event of a more serious incident.
“If you have your seating chart and are adhering to it, and there is an accident, you don’t have to scramble to fill one out for the first responders,” Todd said. Too, dealing with parents can be less challenging when seating information is readily available. “When we keep record of the seating charts in the office and a parent calls with a complaint about another student, we can see how close they are to that student,” Todd noted. “This helps with identifying possible bullying situations.”
The pandemic was also a main factor in initiating the use of seat-ing charts at Bend La Pine Schools in Bend, Oregon. First employed to support COVID-19 contact tracing, seating charts brought favorable results and officials do not plan to abandon it, Kim Crabtree, director of transportation, said.
“There was push back from drivers for the extra work, but it did not take too long for them to see the benefits,” she recalled. “While we’re not going to make it mandatory, the majority of our drivers want to continue [it], and we are encouraging the practice.”
Janet Ulrich, director of transportation for Aurora Public Schools in Colorado, said she likes that the use of charts gives drivers options, such as grouping students by age or following up on problems. “It allows for more accountability for the student,” she noted. “For example, the driver knows who was sitting in a particular seat if damage is done.”
Regular use of charts can also help in overall student relations as drivers get to know student names more readily. “It’s always a great way to start a child’s day with a friendly hello,” said Kaisha McCulley, recent-ly promoted to assistant director of transportation for Exeter Township School District in Reading, Pennsylvania. “Knowing their name makes it so much more personal.”
Assigning seating may also prove helpful in loading school buses, especially at the end of the school day. “Seating charts help with head counts to balance loads,” said Jeffrey Schwepker, director of transportation for Fort Zumwalt School District in O’Fallon, Missouri. “We can also move students apart and control the spacing.” Not to be overlooked is the potential to speed up the process of locating a given student. “If a student is missing we can contact seatmates,” Schwepker pointed out.
The Safety Factor:
Perhaps most important is the potential impact of seating charts on student safety. “The fact that you can pull out a sheet of paper and know exactly where a student sits in seconds speaks volumes on its own,” said McCulley, who is a 2022 STN Rising SuperStar. “In the event of an accident, some-times seconds count why not be prepared?” When it comes to serving students with disabilities, seating charts may be regarded as essential, especially in a situation where riders must be evacuated.
“The use of seating charts is a must if you take evacuation seriously,” said Schmutz-Harden, who leads evacuation training provided this month at the TSD Conference in Frisco, Texas. She noted that some students, especially those with disablities, may need time and training to develop the skills necessary to exit the bus during an emergency and may require assistance from a more capable student. This means they might sit closer to each other. Or a student might be hearing impaired and need a seat closer to the driver to be able to hear instructions in an emergency.
“A driver and attendant should develop a proper evacuation plan with each student in mind,” she continued. “Getting them off the bus in an emergency is even more important than getting them to school.”
Options for use of charts range from the simplicity and low cost of paper to emerging high-tech solutions. At Exeter Township in Pennsylanvia, paper charts are the norm. The sheets are numbered with the seat numbers for each bus, with up to three lines per seat. “We just make them ourselves,” McCulley said. “They’re basic but still have all the information needed to be easily understood by anyone.”
On Beaverton’s buses, the simplicity of paper is complemented by masking tape placed above each assigned seat, with the student’s name in black marker. Kindergarten and first grade students find this especially helpful, Beaver noted. Drivers for Bend La Pine Schools use paper generated from routing software.
“We can fill them in for the driver from the student list assigned to their route through our system, or we can print them blank for the driver to place students where they think it would be best,” Crabtree said, adding that the charts can be amended as needed by the driver. During the peak time of the pandemic, she said that the sheets were covered with a plastic sleeve, and drivers would mark student names on or off with a dry erase pen.
A fully electronic approach represents another option. For example, digital seating charts from Tyler Technologies add flexibility and ease in updating that may not be possible with paper charts. Ryan Smithson, a solutions consultant for the company, explained that such features were expanded during the pandemic, when the need for dynamic seating charts became more evident. Developed in tandem with the company’s mobile app for bus attendance, the charts allow users to pull up the bus roster and seating chart for any run and record attendance on their phones.
Along with timeliness, potential pluses include increased reporting and accountability capabilities, easier access to historical data, and an improved level of service to the community.
“Parents have a better experience when their child’s bus pass even includes their seat assignment,” Smithson said. “It’s also better planning for the drivers, particularly the substitutes we rely on now more than ever.”
Having the latest technology in place may also be a factor in attracting new drivers, especially younger workers who consider phones their most essential tool.
Whatever the format, charts may be worth considering for any districts not currently using them. Downsides appear to be minimal, with the chief drawback simply the effort required to employ them.“It does take time to put them together,” Ulrich noted, “especially for a full bus.”
And language barriers can pose challenges for students who are learning English, she added. But these factors are more than offset by the positive impact seating charts can make. Ulrich, like others, has become an advocate. “They are worth the time to put them together,” she affirmed. “I encourage people to use them.”
Editor’s Note: As reprinted in the November 2022 issue of School Transportation News.
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