Responding to the Next Pandemic

Merriam-Webster defines a pandemic as something “occurring over a wide geographic area (such as multiple countries or continents) and typically affecting a significant proportion of the population.” We have seen that definition in action over the last nearly two years. I believe there is another pandemic in our midst and that we must be mindful of and that is the pandemic of fatigue that has gripped everyone in the school community. I believe this next pandemic could be as disruptive, if not more disruptive, than COVID-19 if we don’t begin identifying the symptoms and establishing courses of treatment.


For anyone who “walked uphill to school both ways” this might not resonate, but there is obvious evidence that the COVID-19 pandemic has weighed heavily on drivers, parents, administrators, students, and the general public beyond just masks, lockdowns, death, and disruption (although that seems like enough). The evidence comes in the form of:

• The higher-than-normal rates of retirement for people who have normally been in the workforce because of their belief that the value of the job doesn’t outweigh the value of the challenges of the job. 

• The completely unacceptable behavior that has occurred at bus stops and school buildings where parents have entered buses and threatened or even stabbed drivers. While we have these types of events each year, anecdotally the volume ad severity of the instances has increased. 

• The number of people jeopardizing students and the public by illegal passing school buses continues with its tragic consequences. 

These events are indicators of a population whose patience has worn thin and whose consideration of and empathy for their community members has bottomed out. It is not hard to appreciate how we got here, but it is imperative that we figure out what to do now that we are here. I believe that failing to manage this pandemic of fatigue has the potential to cripple our ability mitigate the driver shortage, promote safe operations, and return operations to some sense of normalcy. 

The impact of fatigue and stress is insidious because separating tired from fatigued is difficult. A driver who has been working late and coming in early to cover routes experiences a level of fatigue by midweek that we may or may not notice. That driver’s judgement and reaction time may be impaired by the fatigue and when we need them to make a critical decision, they may be incapable of doing so. The potential tragedy of the situation is that all the factors that led to that driver’s fatigue would also be impacting all of the other staff in our organization. As a result, no one was in a position to notice. 

Managing fatigue is not just about getting more sleep. Sleep is a crucial element for all types of health considerations, but the idea that being fatigued is about more than being tired must be considered. The CDC offers guidance on managing fatigue that offer a range of suggestions and resources at https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/hcp/managing-workplace-fatigue.html. Of particular note is the Fatigue Management Risk Assessment Tool offered in the National Response Team “Guidance for Managing Worker Fatigue During Disaster Operations.” Their guidance on creating a tool that supports a structured and discipline approach to both identification of fatigue and the response is outstanding advice. 

Many schools across the country have recognized that there is a problem that must be managed. Richmond (Virginia), Richland Two (South Carolina), Columbus City (Ohio), and Chapel Hill-Carrsboro (North Carolina) are among the districts that have extended their Thanksgiving holidays to address fatigue, burnout, and employee mental health. Person County (North Carolina) is also extending its break reportedly not for mental health reasons but because of staffing shortages. It is not a long walk to believe those shortages are related to staff fatigue. 

While I am skeptical that the Thanksgiving holiday and its commonly associated travel are the stress-free events that support employee revitalization, this time does offer the chance for employees to use a combination of the techniques identified to reduce their own fatigue. However, this can only happen if our organizations actively inform, promote, and reinforce those efforts. Getting informed of and educated on how to create simple and informative messages on managing fatigue during the time off is one of the most important tasks for transportation leaders over the next several months. 

The ongoing and emerging challenges in school transportation have stretched operators and operations like never before. Developing the organizational resilience to respond so that stretching does not lead to breaking is the critical leadership challenge of this time. Creating a structured approach to manage and reduce employee fatigue will be a key component of success for individual operations and the industry more broadly. Take care of yourselves and your employees because we need that now more than ever.


Tim Ammon (tammon@decisionsupportgroup.com) 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.

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