March 13, 2020, was a pivotal day for Americans; it was the last “normal” day we would see for almost a year and a half (longer for others). We learned that all schools would shut down on March 16, 2020, for the remainder of the school year. As I drove my car to work every day after the shutdown, I was struck by how quiet and empty the roadways were. The quiet was very eerie, to say the least. It reminded me of 911 when the sky was devoid of airplanes. As I looked at my colleagues’ faces when they heard the news, I could see the fear, the doubt, the sense of loss and bewilderment.
I promised myself that I would do everything within my sphere of power and responsibility to keep a sense of normalcy to lessen their anxiety and the fear we were facing because now we are in a crisis mode dealing with a deadly virus. As you can imagine, in an instant, many experts from across the spectrum of our society suddenly sprung up to tell us what they thought awaited and how we should be dealing with the reality of COVID- 19 all around us. The school transportation profession was no different. The doom and gloom were at a fever pitch.
Like many concerned citizens, but more importantly, as a Director of Transportation, I incessantly followed news events concerning the spread of COVID-19. I wanted to stay abreast of all the news dealing with the deadly COVID-19 virus, whether it was about medical, political, or operational issues. Not only was I concerned for my health and that of my family, but also the health and safety of my colleagues and the students we are charged with transporting to school.
The school district shut down, except for critically needed employees. Transportation employees such as office staff, school bus drivers, and school bus attendants were sent home with pay, understanding that they were on the clock and must come into work when called by dispatch. We deemed that the director, assistant director, fleet maintenance supervisor, and mechanics were critical employees whose presence during the shutdown was required daily.
The decision by the district to continue to pay employees was the first major decision that significantly and positively impacted our department’s ability to provide services. During the summer of 2020, our focus turned to services such as meal delivery and transportation for students with special needs.
Consequently, we wanted to make sure we had the resources to open up the schools in the fall of 2020. So, my assistant director and I continued coming to work daily; we felt it was essential for us to be at work. In addition, as we established cleaning and sanitizing protocols for the transportation building, we felt that we should model leadership by example. Leading by example is essential to raise the confidence of our employees to come back to work in force when our district administrators were ready to reopen the school.
The next major decision we made in the transportation department, as we planned for the start of the regular school year, was NOT to cut down bus routes for the 2020-2021 school year.
The district decided to open school on a hybrid schedule for grades 7-12 and maintained daily classes for grades K-6. Grades 7-12 we split into two cohorts based on the initial of the student’s last name. A-L came in on Monday and Tuesday, and M-Z came in Thursday and Friday, with Wednesday being a Completely Virtual Learning (CVL) day. The district shortened the instructional day. We wanted to maintain regular routing because there continued to be the talk of pivoting back to full days for all students should we, as a state, reach the “flatten the curve” point. Of course, the goalpost of flattening the curve kept moving and we never pivoted back to a regular school schedule. However, keeping all of our routes intact meant we wouldn’t lose drivers who otherwise would have left looking for a job somewhere else.
Between March 16 and July 5, 2021, we developed protocols to work remotely or in person. We held daily office staff meetings via Google Meet. I also attended daily Google Meet discussions chaired by the superintendent of schools, Dr. L. Oliver Robinson.
We quickly established food delivery transportation support to get food to our neediest children.
Between March 16, 2020, and June 30, 2021, I attended 248 virtual meetings ranging from internal office staff meetings, district-level administrative meetings, and webinars at the local, regional, state, and national levels. I attended 35 meetings between March 16 through March 31, 2020, and between April, May, and June, I attended 71 meetings each month.
I recall, as the weeks and months dragged by, we had one virtual meeting after another with changes coming from the federal and state government continuously. I started to feel “information paralysis” setting in. Our superintendent saw that we were being bombarded with information and meetings. The superintendent decided to reduce the virtual meetings to three per week instead of having them daily. He recognized that we were becoming paralyzed by the ever-changing information. He worked tirelessly to ensure our focus remained on the “North Star,” which was to reopen schools. I contrast this with districts around the country that shut down and never reopened. This contrast makes all of us proud that we faced the unknown, got ahead of the information, and ensured our decisions were the best for our students’ educational, physical, and emotional needs and that of our staff. Our district administrators made all of us proud because they thrived in the chaos created by COVID-19.
Another pivotal decision I arrived at early, in consultation with our most capable transportation team, during the shutdown, was to continue with our bus fleet maintenance and State Department of Transportation (DOT) inspections. Other districts, for a while, opted to suspend work on their fleets and inspections. I thought the decisions made by other colleagues would hurt them in the long run when schools opened back up and transportation was needed to reopen schools. Instead, we determined that our school bus technicians be “essential” personnel.
We stuck to our Preventive Maintenance (PM) and DOT inspection schedule irrespective of what recommendations were coming from CDC and or state governmental agencies. The decision to keep our bus maintenance going full force was the first of several choices which helped us maintain some normalcy within our operation, especially as we envisioned reopening the district in July of 2020 for summer school. We also wanted to stay abreast of our PM schedule and maintain a safe fleet to press into operations when needed.
Our office staff, working collaboratively, started putting together PowerPoint presentations with voice over to share with our colleagues who were at home using the YouTube channel we created.
We covered everything from keeping up to date on the fast changes coming from higher authority to sanitize the buses and what we were doing to sanitize the transportation building daily. We followed with email blasts as often as we could. In addition, we held department meetings via Google Meet, and to keep our transportation staff focused, we sent out transportation quizzes for our team to keep them engaged.
We worked with staff to help them become connected via their cell phones, tablets, and computers because everything, due to the shutdown, was now being done electronically. Our entire department staff rose to the challenge of learning about the technology they had.
I would have to say that one of our proudest accomplishments was having a staff of approximately 300 individuals learn to be connected.
It paid dividends as we moved through the shutdown phase and the partial reopening in the summer of 2020, and later for the reopening of schools for the 2020-2021 school year.
As we continued working with our instructional partners and district administrators, our team of routing specialists, dispatchers, and department heads developed over 20 different bell schedules to meet the COVID-19 reduced instructional day.
A significant hurdle to pivot from pre-COVID-19 operations to COVID-19 operations is the union contract. Our district administrators had a very constructive dialogue with our union partners. Great credit must go to the union leadership in recognizing that we can’t meet COVID-19 protocols operating under pre-COVID rules. The district asked the union to consider suspending the article within the contract dealing with transportation for the duration of the pandemic. To the union’s credit, this they did. The union leadership had the union members vote on an MOU centered on our ability to suspend the language, which allowed us to adjust to the reality of dealing with assignments, bidding, extra work, contact tracing, to name a few. The MOU passed.
Our next major hurdle was to finalize how we would transport students in the fall of 2020. Most transportation pundits were pushing for one student in every other seat. Others were pushing for shower curtains to be installed in buses, while others were pushing for a combination of the above to include temperature monitors installed in the buses to read body temperature. All these ideas we pushed back against didn’t make operational sense, and they would not have allowed us to maximize transportation to meet the needs of our students, their families, and instructional staff. None of them were based on any data or science. Of course, the health and safety of our team and students were at the forefront of our decision-making.
CDC guidance (and that is all it was) stated that students should be seated at least six feet apart “where possible”; we tended to focus on the “where possible”. We designed our seating capacity by a percentage of 50% to 75%, and in some cases, we had a full load of students. We also made sure the two most rear windows were cracked open at least 2-4 inches, and the roof hatch was to remain open unless it was raining. We also directed that the bus interior fans were on. All these protocols inside the bus were to help keep positive airflow, thus mitigating any exhaled virus from lingering inside the bus compartment. Our bus technicians installed hand sanitizing dispensers inside the bus for use by students and staff. “Where possible,” we didn’t allow students to sit in the seat directly behind the bus driver. We did have siblings sit together, “not unless they couldn’t get along.” Not one COVID-19 case was ever traced back to the school bus environment!
Inside our office’s spaces where more than one person occupied space, we separated their workstations using transparent large plastic sheets and had office staff wear face masks all day. We directed staff to keep one window cracked open “no matter what the outside temperature is.” We installed a “heat thermal” monitor in the hallway in front of the dispatch office to see if any employee came in with a low or high-grade temperature.
We decided to shut down the employee break room and issued strict guidelines instructing drivers and bus attendants not to assemble inside the building, outside in the bus compound, or at the school’s bus ports. All of these efforts were to reduce the virus spread.
Anticipating COVID-19 may rip through our department staff of bus drivers and attendants, but still building on the protocols to reopen the school in the fall of 2020, our magnificent trio of bus dispatchers created a plan that would allow us to operate. We know that on an average pre-COVID day, we would have between 19-21 drivers out for sundry reasons. So, our dispatch team analyzed our routes and crafted a plan they could fall back on if they had 20, 25, 30, 35, 40, 45, and 50 plus drivers out of work. This plan came in very handy because several times, during the 2020-2021 school year, we were hitting between 30-35 drivers being out.
This plan allowed us to help a sister district that asked for mutual aid to keep their transportation running so the children of their school district could still come to school. So, for a short week (three days), we averaged 33 drivers out of work, but we could still support our sister district by sending them three drivers. There is no way we could have operated without putting this operational plan together. Kudos go out to our Shenendehowa CSD dispatchers and our staff of drivers who came to work and volunteered to support our sister district!
We had a peculiar experience interviewing prospective school bus driver applicants and others wearing a face mask. We interviewed approximately 37 people during the 20-21 school year for the school bus driver position. We had to relearn their identity all over because we never saw them without a face mask.
Our District spared no expense in obtaining thermal sensing thermometers for all of our buildings, supplied us with Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), and bought us industrial atomizing machines to sanitize our facilities and inside our school buses.
Throughout the shutdown period, followed by the reopening, then the end of the 2020-2021 school year, we had a total of 60 employees who were ordered to quarantine. Of the 60 employees, 22 had tested positive for COVID-19. Of the 22 COVID cases associated with our department, 14 were drivers, and 8 were a mix of office staff, mechanics, and bus attendants. The one proud fact we can look back at is this; none of the positive COVID-19 cases were due to the work environment. Instead, all these cases came from outside the workplace.
A considerable part of our success in operating in this COVID-19 environment stemmed from a well-thought-out “contact tracing” plan. This plan results from hard work between our District COVID Response Team and its leader Ms. Rebecca Carman and our medical partners at the Saratoga County Department of Health. We conducted contact racing during the workday, at night, on weekends, and holidays.
We ensured that any COVID case related to our school system was quickly traced, individual staff and students’ families were notified, and those affected were quarantined so that they did not report to school the next day after confirmation of being identified as having tested positive with COVID-19.
Communication was, and still is, one of our main focuses. We determined early on the need for transparency and constant communication with our staff. We believe this played a huge role in our instructional and non-instructional staff in feeling safe to come back to school. The district made arrangements for those employees with an immune-compromised system to work remotely.
Once the COVID-19 testing kits were made available, our district team set up a drive-through testing station utilizing our maintenance bays. This effort was a huge success for our district. Again, the efforts of Ms. Rebecca Carman and her nursing staff played a huge role in helping to identify and mitigate the spread of COVID-19 within our Shen community.
Later, when the vaccine was made available, our district partnered with the County Health Department to provide nurses to help administer the vaccine. Our district staff turned out in huge numbers to receive the vaccination.
Operationally, we had a lot of positives in pivoting to a COVID-19 operation. This pivot forced us to rethink our normal operational routines. Here’s a list of positives:
• Assigned bus seats K-12
o Fewer discipline problems
o Fewer arguments about who sits where
o Easier for drivers to get to know names/kids
o Seating charts are generally more accurate, good for when a school asks where a student sits as part of Covid-19 tracing, good for viewing video.
o Less lost and found-if an item is left in a seat, the driver knows whose seat it is
• Going Electronic: Email, Google Forms, Safety Packet
o Easier to communicate to everyone at once (List-All Trans) and individuals
o Faster response times from employees
o Less paper waste
o Fewer interruptions for office staff, since employees can use email
o Transportation Route changes – Ability to see new routes and any changes that occur. Data can get to the BOE in a more timely fashion
o Less foot traffic in the routing section resulting in fewer interruptions
o More employees signed up for a direct deposit, saves time putting checks in mailboxes
• Time Cards & Attendance – using Google Form
o No longer alphabetizing every time card (HUGE TIME SAVER)
o No longer chasing employees for their time card
o Employees filling out Google form to request time off (Less paper)
• Bidding by phone – view process live utilizing Google Sheets
o Less stressful for employees
o Less paper waste
o More Efficient
• More mirrored runs
o Easier for drivers to get to know the names of students
o Less lost and found-if an item is left in the AM, the driver gives it to the student in PM, and vice versa
o Less confusion for the students as they know their driver/monitor names
o Extremely helpful when conducting contact tracing
• Better cleaning protocols. Even though we won’t always spray buses/offices (thank goodness!) we can:
o Continue to wipe things a little more (video games for use by Students with Special Education, tops of bus seats, office surfaces, etc.)
o Keep hand sanitizer on board the buses.
o Personal hygiene throughout the school year, especially before and during the flu season, needs to be the basis for a healthy staff and environment – use emails and posters to remind employees.
COVID-19 brought chaos; taming the chaos required strong leadership at every level.
Fear is to be respected; it is not to be allowed to paralyze a person, persons, or entity.
Transparency and sharing of information are crucial to survival during any significant natural or manufactured disaster, and COVID-19 is a disaster in every sense of the word.
Having strong, focused, and informed leadership at every level is required. Having informed and focused staff is just as crucial. Keeping our feet well-grounded is a must in a chaotic atmosphere.
Having plans in place, and having communicated those plans to all stakeholders, in a timely and consistent fashion, is pivotal in the successful school reopening, and in providing education to our students and keeping them, their teachers, support staff, and administrators all safe…anything less is unthinkable!