Over the many years I have been fortunate enough to be a part of the school bus community, I have often said that school transportation folks are ‘problem solvers’ and that you tend to not pat yourselves on the back very often. The culture of school transportation is to recognize the situation at hand, address the need, and then look around for what is next to get done. No fuss, no fanfare.
…Enter a pandemic called “COVID-19.”
March 2020 through the present. Eighteen (and counting) of the hardest, most trying months for many of our lifetimes. Our nation was rocked almost in slow motion by a new pandemic called COVID-19 that has left more than 600,000 Americans dead and has found thousands and thousands more in hospitals and under ICU care.
Over the course of a couple months, we experienced the closing of schools roll across America one state at a time. Suddenly, children were learning from home and teachers were having to learn how to teach those kids remotely or from their own homes. It was all a little bit unnatural and presented a true struggle and challenge for all involved. Individuals and institutions were forced to find new and untested ways of doing things and had to do so quickly.
…Enter yellow school buses. And the men and women who make those school buses go.
• Where and when schools were open on a hybrid-learning basis or on split schedules, yellow buses got children where they had to go and when they had to be there, regardless of the routing complexities. This included ensuring continuity of services for students with disabling conditions.
• When districts determined to provide daily or weekly meals for children in poverty and need, our food service colleagues stepped up and then we stepped up to deliver the food to our children and their families.
• Children who lived in rural or other areas with inadequate technology infrastructure often benefitted from school buses parked in remote locations to allow them to access the internet.
• Moreover, school buses and school bus drivers were the mode of transportation to get laptops and tablets into the hands of children in need of that technology to enable their learning to continue remotely.
• We learned a great deal about strategies for ensuring clean buses while parents were worried about putting their children on our buses. NAPT and state associations offered educational programs for the industry on cleaning and disinfecting techniques, technologies, and materials. Those lessons will likely carry on into the future and change how we maintain our vehicles.
• School bus drivers were enlisted to take temperatures of student riders to ensure they were not exposing others to COVID and to ensure that students were wearing face masks to protect themselves and others. This meant taking on duties that they didn’t originally sign on for.
• Many operations worked with their unions to seek flexibility in job duties and route selection to meet the ever-changing demands of the pandemic environment. Their ability to resolve differences and show cooperation signals opportunities for improved labor-management relations down the road as we evolve to meet parent and school needs.
• Transportation managers and routers found new approaches to scheduling and loading to comply with new guidelines on social distancing. Those efforts presented some of the more daunting challenges we faced.
• School bus contractors and school districts found that some elements of their contractual relationships and financial reimbursements were not attuned to a crisis such as the COVID pandemic. That made things difficult for contractors in terms of employee retention, bus maintenance and related activities they needed to be ready when school re-opened. Many districts and contractors have seen new ways to approach their contracts and contingencies, hopefully leading to better responses in future crises.
• The driver shortage was exacerbated by the pandemic in several ways. Many older drivers or drivers with other medical conditions have decided to give it up and not put themselves at risk. Some drivers have remained on unemployment insurance rather than return to the job. Some have looked at the hours, conditions and wages and determined that they want to pursue other avenues of employment. So, school transportation managers and contractors have had to conduct more intensive driver recruitment strategies and focus more intently on driver retention practices to ensure they could deliver in the new year with schools fully opening.
I could go on. My hope in inventorying the many experiences of the past year is that we will all take something away from this that we learned and make it a part of our ‘new normal.’ I have seen articles written eloquently by some transportation leaders that expand on many of these points. As an industry we need to compile them and identify those lessons that merit inclusion in our industry best practices or in our NCST safety standards. As an industry, we pride ourselves in learning from accidents or situation. This COVID pandemic should be no different. Expect to hear more about such learning and evolution in the coming months.
So as the school year gets into full gear across the nation, let us all take some time to recognize the hard work and patience and service that we rendered by our school bus drivers, mechanics, dispatchers, aides, trainers and managers during this past year and a half of uncertainty and challenges. And let us try to do something that does not come naturally to people in school bus transportation: take a humble and quiet – but richly deserved – bow for our efforts. And in classic school transportation fashion, turn back to the work at hand and get it done again in 2021-2022!
Peter Mannella (firstname.lastname@example.org) is chair of the NAPT Public Policy Committee.