COVID has created myriad disruptions to normal school transportation, but one of the most impactful is how much the pandemic has disrupted transportation for children in all grades, all socioeconomic classes, and all district types. While we understand the immediate term impact of this disruption, the longer-term effect on both student development and district operations have yet to be fully defined.
The pandemic has demonstrated that now, more than ever, education starts with student transportation. What has also become clear though is that more than that rides on transportation. In education today, there are many questions surrounding equity – who receives what type and quality of educational services both within the classroom and virtually. Transportation can have a significant leveling effect to support whatever modality of return to school has been chosen while also ensuring that all students are given the opportunity to succeed.
At no time has there been more need to rethink and reinvent the way we provide services. Students, parents, school administrators, and the general public have seen the importance of schools to student development and economic development. What we have seen is that the systems we build pre-pandemic do not have the flexibility they need intra-or post-pandemic. Finding a way to deliver hybridized services to a hybridized system will be crucial to the continued success and relevance of transportation operations.
This need for hybrid systems will require us to rethink every element of the systems we run. Questioning the underlying premises of the binary choice between district operated or contracted systems versus more flexible mixed systems is both disruptive and necessary. Deciding whether the forced tradeoff between efficiency and flexibility has been taken to too great of an extreme will be a challenge in light of the budget pressures that are coming. Redefining how we define successfully supporting the educational systems of our individual districts will be a difficult and soul-searching exercise for many. All these things will be hard and uncomfortable to do, but they are all also necessary to ensure that the services we provide reflect the needs of those to whom we provide them.
Coordination with parents is critical
It is critical to acknowledge that transportation managers are implementers, not makers, of policy. School Boards and district leaders are responsible for articulating the why of how services are being provided. Transportation professional need to focus intensely on communicating the how and the what of transportation. Ensuring clarity in our own minds and in our organizations about our role will allow us to more clearly design and implement communication strategies for parents and all our stakeholders.
The first key need is to communicate that transportation starts at home. I have a two-year-old daughter on whom I have to perform a health check every day when she goes off to her half-day preschool. In doing the assessment it is my responsibility to be transparent and honest about her condition because I do not want to get everyone in her class sick. It is this that crystallized for me the critical role that parents play as the initial facilitator of safe transportation. Their assurances allow us to safely connect home and school and school and home. As an industry, we have been so focused on our own safety I am not sure that we have done a great job of communicating to all the other cogs in the system how crucial their role is to our success. A pandemic that requires self certification to promote safety seems as good a time as any to start communicating that message loudly, clearly, and frequently.
Returning to – or rerouting – the path to success
Throughout the pandemic transportation managers have often been heard hoping for a return to the “normalcy” of January 2020. A return to the path of increasing safety and optimizing efficiency throughout their operations. That is good, but first they should ask themselves if their pre-COVID “path” was really in the best interest of everyone involved.
The innovation and reinvention addressed at the beginning of the article does not imply that we should want to go back to solving the same old problems of driver shortages, bell times, and seat belts. The disruption caused by the pandemic presents a unique opportunity to shake off many of the longstanding practices of the past which were archaic or redundant.
We must make substantial changes to the way that we operate, whether that is by changing processes, expectations, or just the ways we conduct business. The goal should not be returning to January 2020 normalcy – it should be accepting and acknowledging where we are today and preparing our organizations to respond to the new challenges ahead.
We as an industry and all of you as individuals have the opportunity to be bold, be innovative, and be strategic to address the systemic issues that have stood in the way of transportation being the enabler of student access to education that we all work so hard to make it.
I encourage you take maximum advantage of the information and resources provided in School BUSRide and across the entire NAPT portfolio of resources so you can be the catalyst for the changes that are needed.
Tim Ammon (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a co-founder of Decision Support Group. He has been providing consulting services to public and private sector clients for nearly 25 years. His special focus has been assisting organizations with issue identification and designing improvement strategies. Visit www.decisionsupportgroup.com for more information.