2021: What now?

By Tim Ammon and Tom Platt

The turning of the calendar means that we are all getting settled into a new year and, in this year, a new presidential administration. While it seems unlikely that, to turn a phrase, the new boss will be the same as the old boss, a core set of challenges remain unchanged. As we continue to settle in to 2021, it seems appropriate to consider how the student transportation community might need to react to the pandemic, budget development for the years ahead, and (eventually) a new post-pandemic school year opening.

The nature of the transportation function is to be relentlessly forward looking. Finding a way to meet the challenges of the next trip, the next route, and the next day dominates the thinking of managers across the school transportation industry. However, it is critically important that we take a moment to stop and look back at all that has happened since February 2020. Identifying the changes to your organization and operations that enhanced your ability to be responsive is something that should be considered a new, permanent part of the system not simply a temporary COVID response. We need to look backward in order to look forward and acknowledge that COVID has forced us to rethink some long-held beliefs. By doing so over the past year, solutions that might not have seemed possible in January 2020 are now part of regular operations in January 2021.

New ideas, new solutions, and continued flexibility will be the lynchpin to successfully responding to the continued challenges that must be addressed. On the first full day of the new administration, President Biden signed an executive order focused on school reopening. The directives in the order support a number of issues the National Association for Pupil Transportation (NAPT) has addressed over the last few months in its webinars including enhanced data collection and reporting, support for funding of PPE, and encouragement of expanded broadband internet access. Meanwhile, public pronouncements encouraging, but not requiring, the reopening of schools within the first 100 days of the administration sets down a marker for expectations. It appears that the key concern for transportation managers will not be, “What is the goal?” as it was six months ago, but rather “How do we get there?”

Over the next six to nine months, we are likely to be confronting at least two and likely more “school starts. The near-term change in the operation of many schools across the nation from virtual to hybrid or from hybrid to full in-school learning is both an immediate challenge and a preview of the 2021-22 school year opening. Unfortunately, it is unlikely that all the buildup and effort that we dedicate to a “normal” school opening will be possible for any of these efforts. As a result, it will be necessary to ruthlessly and relentlessly prioritize how and where you are spending your time. Our belief is that three areas will be particularly demanding of your attention:

Driver management – “Who’s driving the bus?” is both a leadership cliché and a nightmare come true for transportation leaders. The driver shortage crisis has not improved during COVID. Our observation is that the currently limited and/or disrupted transportation schedules may be masking how much worse the shortage has become, and how much additional work will be necessary to achieve an acceptable level of service heading into 2021/22. A number of significant structural adaptations may be necessary to bell times, compensation strategies, recruiting and training practices, and policies to accommodate reduced driver availability. Given how big the hole will potentially be, there is no time to waste. This issue needs to be addressed sooner rather than later.

Route redesign – Right after the question of “Who” comes the question of “How?”.  Physical distancing expectations, changes in school schedules, and lingering anxiety among families and staff about the impact of COVID-19 are only some of the new parameters that must be considered when designing routes for immediate use and for the next school opening. If expectations are to open schools soon and keep them open this will be a significant challenge and cannot start soon enough.

Community communication – “We need to talk.” This is a sentence that strikes fear into the heart of many, but it is crucial for our immediate success. We need to be just as effective at telling the daily story of transportation as we are at delivering the services. We need to do this not because it is nice to do, but because in these uncertain times we must do it. The funding you receive, the support you get from your administration and school board, and the respect you get from the community will define your ability to get things done. If doing important things to enhance safety, like limiting illegal bus passing, is predicated on every stakeholder understanding that what you do is important and valuable, then near constant reinforcement of your message is key. So again, “We need to talk.”

Changes in expectations, changes in operations, and changes in resources will all be part of the new normal for many if not all student transportation providers in the months and years ahead. However, the core commitment to student safety, enabling access to education, and high-quality service provision will remain. In the past year, our profession has been challenged like never before. We, as an industry and a student transportation community, need to use this unique time in history to remind the public of the value of our services. Transportation will be the smiling face at the vanguard of our rebuilt educational system. As you have on so many days before, go get ‘em and bring them home safely.

Tim Ammon and Tom Platt are the co-owners of Decision Support Group, LLC, a consulting company based serving the student transportation community. They can be reached at tammon@decisionsupportgroup.com and
tplatt@decisionsupportgroup.com, respectively.

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