Gov. Mark Dayton proclaims Feb. 22 the state's first-ever School Bus Driver Appreciation Day.
Many pupil transportation officials agree that the summer months provide a break from the daily grind of the school year.
“You don’t have as many students riding buses, and you won’t have parents calling in asking about where their child’s bus is,” says Lionel Pinn, transportation director at Centralia/Chehalis (Wash.) Pupil Transportation Cooperative (PTC). “It gives you a chance to catch your breath.”
The disparity between the number of routes Centralia/Chehalis PTC operates during the summer and the number it operates during the school year accounts for the staff’s ability to recharge. The cooperative operates one route for summer school. During the school year, it operates 61 routes.
However, some operations run many more buses during the summer. Prince William County Public Schools (PWCPS) in Manassas, Va., operates 350 buses and between 700 and 750 routes.
“My experience has been that [summer is] a very hectic period,” says Transportation Director Edward Bishop. “It’s not as busy as the first two months of the school term, but it’s busier than the rest of the year because we’re doing so many things.”
In addition to providing service for summer school, PWCPS’ transportation department provides service to parks and recreation-type organizations and those that serve the elderly; dedicates time to hiring and training drivers; and prepares for the upcoming school year, among other activities.
Centralia/Chehalis PTC and other operations perform similar tasks, suggesting that while the summer is generally slower for the pupil transportation industry than the regular school year, it is still a busy time.
Pre-summer planning is essential
With all of the work that must be accomplished, what can transportation officials do to get the most out of these months? Pinn suggests making a task list. Prior to the end of the school year, he and his staff compile a list of items they want to accomplish during the summer.
The staff also contacts school principals and secretaries who will be on vacation during the summer to obtain information they will need to complete route and bus stop tasks for the school year. This ensures that their work is not disrupted when these personnel are unavailable.
Preparation for the new school year begins early at Oceanside (Calif.) Unified School District (USD) as well. Transportation Director Glenn Perry says that before the end of the current school year, the department determines whether changes have been made to bell times at the district’s schools and notifies parents accordingly.
Transportation during the summer
Transportation during the summer takes different shapes depending on the services offered at an operation. At Durant (Okla.) Independent School District (ISD), Transportation Director Billy Whittenburg says the department works closely with a local college to provide service for the district’s Upward Bound program. During the six-week program, four of the department’s buses transport students from Southeastern Oklahoma to and from the college. Because the students stay at the college overnight for several days each week, the department provides transportation for field trips and stops at Wal-Mart as well.
PWCPS’ transportation staff transitions quickly to summer service. The district’s summer school program begins a week after the school year ends.
While some contractors provide summer school transportation for the districts they serve, as well as service to individuals with special needs, the bulk of their work stems from contracts with agencies that organize summer camps. Tim Flood, executive vice president of The Trans Group LLC in Spring Valley, N.Y., says the company spends much of the summer serving both public and private organizations for summer camp service, Boy and Girl Scout branches being two such entities.
Flood notes that the primary difference between The Trans Group’s service during the summer and its service during the school year is the frequency with which the routes change. “The customers have different needs,” he explains. “Many of the routes for the camps will change weekly because they’ll have campers that will come for an eight-week program, or a four-week program, or some kids will come for two weeks and then be gone for two weeks.”
The staff at B and B Transportation Inc. in Bethany, Conn., also stays occupied by serving camps and providing transportation for field and charter trips. “The summer is much busier than it was 10 to 20 years ago,” says Brad Cohen, vice president of the company. “They’re occupying children much more today than in the past. There are also more field trips. Groups like the YMCA go to an amusement park once a week.”
Durant ISD’s transportation department operates a comparable program to generate revenue. The department has contracts with local day care facilities, and its drivers transport those children to the local movie theater or swimming pool.
“I feel that if you have all of these buses out there, why not keep them running?” Whittenburg says. “Eighty percent of our travel cuts down in the summer, so this allows us to keep our buses rotated.”
In addition to transporting summer school students, Perry says Oceanside USD’s transportation department serves the city in various capacities, such as providing service for Parks and Recreation trips and local Boys & Girls Clubs of America activities.
Invest time in cleaning, software updates
Due to the slower pace, the summer months are a good time to tackle projects that go unaddressed during the school year.
“We do deep cleaning. We’ll get into the offices and bundle up old records,” Perry says. “If there are facility changes that we want to make — like relocating desks — we try to do those things during the summer, when it’s least disruptive to the operation.”
The department also uses the summer to perform upgrades to its routing and field trip software because it is easier to correct problems and address information technology issues, Perry says.
Flood says that The Trans Group has technology — such as software programs for its dispatchers and shop personnel — installed and updated during the summer when the staff has more time to receive training.
Recruiting drivers, training
Many other types of training take place in the summer. Pupil transportation administrators dedicate substantial time to the recruitment and instruction of new drivers, as well as training for veteran drivers, to ready the team for the school year.
Centralia/Chehalis PTC provides classroom and behind-the-wheel training for its new drivers, as does Durant ISD. Whittenburg begins classroom training for new drivers in early July, and he opens his sessions to drivers at nearby school districts.
Instruction on state-mandated requirements is another facet of training that drivers receive during these months. Pinn designates one day to review the current activities that the drivers must be trained in to maintain their certification. The department also renews each driver’s first aid card every summer.
“In Virginia, school district transportation departments must provide recertification training for their school bus drivers every three years,” Bishop says. PWCPS provides this training for its drivers during the summer; the department focuses on refresher courses in CPR and first aid and operational issues. The topics that will be covered during this year’s recertification training include pre- and post-trip inspections, emergency bus evacuation procedures and loading and unloading procedures.
The summer is not just a time to train school bus drivers; it also presents opportunities for transportation administrators to educate themselves. Pinn, Whittenburg and Bishop say that they attend state and regional conferences. Pinn, for instance, regularly attends the Washington Association for Pupil Transportation’s Annual Conference, wherein workshops are offered on such topics as student management and identifying individuals who are using illegal substances.
Similarly, Whittenburg and his technicians attend the Oklahoma Association for Pupil Transportation Annual Conference and Trade Show. This year’s conference will include a workshop on the EPA’s 2010 emissions regulations and a course for technicians to introduce a professional standard for school bus inspections.
Fleet maintenance and beyond
Thorough maintenance is performed on school buses at most operations year-round, but the reduction in service that occurs in the summer allows technicians to devote extra attention to the vehicles.
Cohen says all of the buses at B and B Transportation are deep-cleaned and waxed. They are also brought into the shop to receive a bout of general maintenance.
In addition to ensuring that his fleet is well maintained, Bishop says he times the delivery of new buses for the summer months, saying that it gives his technicians time to add any auxiliary equipment that was not installed at the dealership.
“The technicians perform a complete service to make sure they’re roadworthy before they’re put into service in September,” he adds.
The Trans Group’s fleet comprises just over 950 buses, 40 percent of which operate during the summer. Flood says this makes it a convenient time to install technology on the buses. “It may be a camera system, GPS technology, additional heaters or new mirrors,” Flood says, “and it may be as a result of a requirement in [one of our contracts], or it may be something that we’ve made a decision to put in our fleet to upgrade it.”
Planning for the school year
Preparing for the school year requires engaging in the most involved series of tasks over the summer. In conjunction with recruiting and training drivers and attending to buses, pupil transporters meet to discuss material for the year.
“I sit down with all of the trainers and dispatchers and we’ll calendar out meetings for the upcoming school year and determine what the training topics are going to be,” Perry says. “We’ll also make sure that the back-to-school orientation is finalized.”
Transportation departments and contractors must also ensure that routes are efficient and that parents receive up-to-date information about them.
“This involves reviewing the routes implemented during the previous school year and refining them as necessary, both with routing software and manually, as well as updating the routes on the transportation page of the district’s Website,” Pinn says.
The staff also accommodates incoming kindergartners and performs “roll-ups.” Information on kindergartners is entered into the department’s routing software database, and letters or postcards that include the child’s route are mailed to parents. Sometimes phone calls are made to parents to relay the information.
“A ‘roll-up’ is when you take your fourth graders and roll them up to the fifth grade,” Pinn explains. “It’s not a big deal unless they’re going to a different building at the other end of town. Then they’ll have a whole different routing package. Doing roll-ups gives us an opportunity to make sure that the kids are on the right buses.”
To determine their ridership, Oceanside USD transportation employees review pupil count data that was recorded monthly during the previous school year. Furthermore, the staff performs a substantial amount of field work to assess areas where new construction projects could affect the department’s routes, and to assess whether more stops needed to be added to a route. Perry says this helps the dispatchers generate routes that are as complete as possible for the start of the school year.
Whittenburg says that in addition to projecting the district’s growth for the school year and assessing routes accordingly, he and his staff assess the department’s equipment to determine whether anything should be put out of service. Bus assignment begins two to three weeks before the school year commences.
For contractors, preparing for the school year largely depends on their customers’ wishes. “For some of our customers, we get the student information and do all of the routing,” Flood says. “For other customers, they give us the routes.”
Flood says that once routes are generated, the drivers test them and the staff distributes bus passes to the students. The passes are typically mailed, but Flood says that for one of the company’s customers, the bus drivers travel to individual passengers’ houses to hand them out.
The process is similar for B and B Transportation employees. Cohen says the office staff becomes especially busy compiling information from the schools the company serves with regard to which students will require its services. “It’s one of the few businesses that completely reinvents itself every year,” he says.
B and B Transportation’s drivers come in toward the end of summer to learn the routes and review safety procedures.
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