Industry Associations Step Up

Curt Macysyn, executive director of the National School Transportation Association, details why collaboration between associations is critical for the industry’s
post-COVID recovery

As the country prepared itself for the impact of an international pandemic, student transportation became adversely impacted, as parents and education officials alike became concerned over their children’s exposure to contagion and public viral spread.

“When we began the year, we had primary goals and objectives that we were looking to achieve,” said Curt Macysyn, Executive Director of the National School Transportation Association (NSTA). “As we moved further into the year, I don’t think anyone imagined that the depth of the issues surrounding the pandemic would run so deeply.”

As COVID-19 raged on, the student transportation system was quickly disrupted as schools transitioned into full closures and virtual platform based online education. This became a difficult period for contractors, as school districts’ service needs quickly diminished, and in some cases, continuing payments ceased.

“If contractors are not getting paid to continue the operation of the transportation despite the disruption, then drivers are likely going to have to be laid off, and items like mortgage and bus payments, property taxes and insurance go by the wayside,” Macysyn said. “The ripple effect of the pandemic caused a lot of turmoil within the industry.”

With a strong advocacy program, both on Capitol Hill and within regulatory bodies, the NSTA began lobbying strenuously for a provision in the CARES Act called Section 18006, directing that school districts utilizing CARES money, pay their contractors “to the greatest extent practicable” through the duration of the pandemic.

But educational decision are largely under the auspices of local control, and student transportation has specifics and nuances geared to each individual state.

“Some of our folks lobbied at the state level for continuing payments for contractors, and we accomplished what we could in CARES Act, in achieving broader language that would support, not just the school bus contractors, but any similarly situated group,” Macysyn said.

As many buses remained idle, the NSTA continued work to maintain the continuity of the student transportation system, first supporting the Paycheck Protection Program and the Main Street Program, and then disseminating information on how contractors could access relief, in the form of loans, to help keep operations moving, with the hope that the schools would return in the fall.

Additional efforts in November 2020 to educate the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP) of the CDC about the important role of school bus drivers followed, as the organization sought the inclusion of school bus drivers as essential employees in the Phase 1b rollout of the COVID-19 vaccine.

The organization also continued to lobby Congress in favor of the CERTS Act, pushing for contractors to receive relief benefits in the Coronavirus Phase 4 stimulus package discussion on Capitol Hill. The Consolidate Appropriations Act, 2021 contained a $2 billion CERTS Act provision, which was reduced from the original $8 billion proposal. The good news is that President Trump signed the measure on December 27, 2020, and some measure of relief should make its way to contractors in the early part of 2021.

“It’s been quite a roller coaster ride,” Macysyn said. “On top of all the COVID-19 activities, we’ve maintained our full cadre of services for our members, continuing to address the emerging needs, as well as the traditional needs of the organization.”

The organization’s committee structure continues to move forward as normal, hosting its Annual Meeting and Convention in July on a virtual platform, as well as a full schedule of webinars, weekly podcasts, and regular monthly editions of the NSTA newsletter.

Another one of the tools that the organization utilized was the Student Transportation Aligned for Return to School, or STARTS Task Force, a collaboration among the National Association for Pupil Transportation (NAPT), the National Association of State Directors of Pupil Transportation (NASDPTS), and the NSTA to research, review, and report on matters relating to COVID-19 and student transportation.

“It really demonstrated that we’re all in this together,” Macysyn said. “Among Mike Martin, Charlie Hood and me, we came up with a framework of a collaborative effort with many industry representatives involved. The group, under the management of Tim Ammon and Jim Regan, then vetted the issues, considered the current landscape, and presented a well thought out set of principles for transportation professionals to utilize. One of the important by-products of this effort was that the collaboration presented a united front within the student transportation industry, when one was critically needed. And that’s still an important feature as we move forward.”

The organizations have continued to work closely throughout the duration of the pandemic, seeking to emphasize student transportation as part of the overall educational experience and ensuring that once children return to school, transportation services will remain safe and secure.

“The silver lining here is, we’ve come together as an industry,” Macysyn said. “Understanding that we’re more effective when we can work together, for the benefit of the 26 million school children, who ride the school bus each and every day.”