Bus stops: 9 school busing realities to recognize

Superintendents and other school district leaders must consider the following bus transportation truths as decisions about this area, and others, are made throughout the school year.

What individually does the work of 36 cars and collectively transports nearly 26 million kids a day? It’s the school bus, and like everything else related to education in the past six months, it has experienced major bumps in the road.

“You take the nation’s largest system of mass transit and shut it down overnight—that’s going to have a ripple effect,” says Mike Martin, executive director of the National Association for Pupil Transportation. Martin was a co-administrator on a project that pulled the school bus transportation industry together in an effort to help school district leaders plan for fall reopenings.

Formed in mid-May, the Student Transportation Aligned for Return To School (STARTS) Task Force released its 70-page report—featuring 27 guidelines and more than 250 individual tasks for consideration when determining how or whether to implement the guidelines for a district’s operation—in July. The aim: Ensure transportation directors know what their options are. “We tried to give them the broadest perspective possible and the widest array of choices,” says Martin. “We didn’t want to just create a report someone would put in a pile. We wanted to create a product that they will use and reuse as necessary.”

“They” need not mean only administrators responsible for transportation.

“My primary suggestion would be that superintendents familiarize themselves with the report and discuss it with their transportation administrators and staff,” says Charlie Hood, executive director of the National Association of State Directors of Pupil Transportation Services, as well as another STARTS co-administrator. “It might provide them with a greater understanding of how they can help transporters be more successful in fulfilling their duties associated with resumption of on-site learning.”

From where Hood and others involved in busing sit, the function is a crucial part of education. “Often it’s discussed as an ancillary service, and I don’t understand that perspective,” says Martin. “I’m hopeful that the superintendents and business officials understand that transportation is indeed integral to education.”

With that assumption in the forefront, administrators leading districts must know the following nine realities about bus transportation as decisions about this area, and others, are made.

1. An initial reopening plan is simply that—initial.

For schools that opened full-time, if a COVID flare-up occurs the district will likely need to decrease bus services, points out Tim Ammon, a STARTS report co-manager. Those that opened under a hybrid model could pivot and wind up increasing or decreasing busing. And others that decided not to open initially will at some point be ramping back up, also impacting busing, adds Ammon, a consultant to districts and student transportation operations via his firm, Decision Support Group. In other words, officials this year will be “on this for all 180-ish days of school,” he says.

2. Nearly all policy decisions have a trickle-down impact on busing.

Building a tool for transportation during a pandemic

The Student Transportation Aligned for Return to School (STARTS) Task Force is a collaboration between the National Association for Pupil Transportation, the National Association of State Directors of Pupil Transportation and the National School Transportation Association. And in about two months’ time, the group compiled information and ideas for a report containing 27 guidelines and more than 250 individual tasks. Since the report’s publication in July, the team has been working with districts to create standard operating procedures based on the guidelines, says James P. Regan, a consultant and managing partner with Capital Works Consulting Group, who co-managed the project.

Developing a comprehensive list of action items involved gathering information from state and corporate reopening plans. “We pulled from Starbucks, Walmart, McDonald’s, Amtrak, United and others—any that had action items,” says Regan. “Then there was a parting of the Red Sea—anything that was a ‘what’ became a guideline, and any ‘how’ became a task.”

The STARTS report and related tools can be downloaded here.

Although the STARTS team designed its report to accommodate variations of policies such as face coverings and contact tracing, transportation folks know that decisions on such items will greatly impact busing. “We’ve said from day one that the social distancing decision was the first domino effect,” says James P. Regan, a consultant and managing partner with Capital Works Consulting Group, who works with transportation and other industries and co-managed the task force report project with Ammon. Once social distancing in the classroom was decided upon, the practice had to work on the bus as well. That might mean 10 kids with no masks, or 24 or 36 kids wearing face coverings.

3. Transportation pivots can’t happen overnight.

The typical summer-long bus route development process was compressed significantly this year, and in some cases had to be redone again when the district’s reopening plan shifted. The pace of change, which has continued into the new school year, is nerve-wracking for all, Ammon says. “People are going to have to be patient with the systems. These are very big ships that need some time to turn. And I’m not 100% certain that patience is in a great surplus at the moment.”

Just how much time do these big ships need to turn? While that answer of course varies, Regan gives an example of an Ohio district that outsources transportation and has said it needs an eight-week lead time when the district wants to pivot from his hybrid model to 100% in person. Districts requiring a smaller fleet may be able to work with four to five weeks, and large urban districts could be looking at 12 weeks. Going from full distance learning to full operations would be a much bigger step than from hybrid to full, he adds.

Re-establishing bus routes and stops—even with routing software in use—requires a constant eye for safety, and last-minute information often requires modifications. “This is all while ensuing health protocols are in place for employees and students, and that they are trained and familiar with them,” says Hood.

4. Pivots requiring extra buses would likely take even longer.

“Even if busing is a contracted service, it’s not as if people have 100 extra buses and they’re just waiting for a phone call,” says Curt Macysyn, executive director of the National School Transportation Association and a task force co-administrator. The procurement process, even in an instance where the decision to spend the money is made quickly or where buying used buses is the plan, is sure to take time.

Staffing is also an issue. “It’s not like you can take somebody off the street and say tomorrow, go drive a bus,” says Macysyn. “It can take up to 12 weeks to train and license a driver.”

Transportation appreciation

School transportation officials see a major positive side to the pandemic: A greater level of awareness. “Folks have a broader sense of the various impacts that transportation has within the overall education realm,” says Curt Macysyn, executive director of the National School Transportation Association. “People have a greater level of empathy for how seamless the process is. There are a lot of moving parts.”

Mike Martin, executive director of the National Association for Pupil Transportation, sees the school bus as an “equalizer.” During shutdowns, buses brought WiFi hotspots and meals to neighborhoods and as schools have reopened the bus gets kids to school, many of whom have no other way to get there. Bus transportation, he says, “really is integral to education.”

5. Transportation staffing levels could fall to a point where busing can’t operate.

The STARTS Task Force kept staff safety top-of-mind when doing its work this summer. After all, at some point operations would halt if too many staff got sick or didn’t feel comfortable continuing in their work. “There’s a threshold where transportation cannot fulfill its mission anymore,” says Regan. So superintendents should be aware of what that threshold is and whether it’s inching closer.

6. Managing transportation, especially now, requires a lot of collaboration.

“I have not seen evidence of a lot of collaboration between stakeholders at this point,” says Regan, who notes that in many districts decisions were made without union input.

With any aspect of school operations, including busing, “the pandemic has made it more critical than ever to listen to employees and stakeholders at all levels,” says Hood.

As Ammon puts it, “easy left the building a long time ago.”

Transportation experts agree that district thresholds for moving between opening tiers are a must-communicate-widely factor. If operational leaders know that, for example, a 7% infection rate would cause the district to pivot, they can start preparing as the rate creeps toward that, says Regan. And if all stakeholders know the situation will be re-evaluated every 30 days, the timing of an announcement would not be a surprise.

Setting thresholds creates a level of certainty for a certain period of time, and that’s comforting in an uncertain world. “It’s the perpetual uncertainty that has made this so difficult for everyone,” says Ammon.

7. Delayed reopenings may kill transportation funding.

Most districts receiving state transportation support report how many kids are riding on buses using an October count, says Ammon. “If we’re hybrid with 30% of kids out, does that mean we’re going to lose 30% of the funding? There are massive implications from an operational and financial standpoint.”

8. COVID-related data reporting requirements are approaching.

“Funding for anything that was pandemic-related could be covered under the CARES Act, which means accounting for new activity,” says Regan. “You almost need a separate balance sheet for the whole COVID side.” With transportation and other operational areas, he adds, “it would probably be beneficial for a superintendent or business official to forecast their administrative requirements and then work to set up the data collection infrastructure.”

Related: Bus transportation for special needs students in a pandemic

9. Transportation officials and drivers are ready to step up.

Regan’s message for district leaders is this: “Make the policy decisions you want, and transportation can respond. We’ve given you a tool to be able to respond.”

Macysyn is just as confident. “We’ve been doing this a long time. We’re well-trained professionals,” he says.

That goes for both busing leaders and drivers. “For the most part, drivers are looking forward to getting back to work,” says Martin. “They enjoy kids and like to serve their communities. I think they take great pride in their work. They miss their kids.”

Melissa Ezarik is senior managing editor of DA.

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