A recent incident in Georgia served as a reminder of the fact that transporting special-needs students requires extra diligence and care.
In October 2017, a special-needs student tipped over in his wheelchair during a bus ride, suffering a head injury. The Georgia school district discovered that the student wasn’t strapped in properly due to a training deficiency. That prompted the district to put special-needs school bus staff through a week-long retraining and to provide refresher training more often.
Going a step further, in South Carolina, the transportation department at Greenville County Schools has for several years seen the need to train and test aides, as well as drivers, to ensure that they have the necessary abilities and skills to perform tasks that are essential to safely transporting special-needs students.
The department’s Special Needs Physical Performance Test (SNPPT) is conducted every year to ensure that special-needs drivers and attendants are both mentally and physically capable of doing the job, says Teena Mitchell, special-needs transportation coordinator at the school district.
The SNPPT is composed of 11 standards. Physical requirements include the ability to lift 40 pounds and drag 125 pounds down the length of a bus; to kneel on the floor to install wheelchair securements; and to remove special-needs students from the bus in the event of an evacuation. Drivers and aides must also go up and down the stairs three times in 30 seconds; exit the service door within 15 seconds and the emergency door within 25 seconds; and load and tie down a wheelchair in five minutes.
Mental requirements include the ability to retain information on correctly installing car seats and safety vests; loading wheelchairs; and reading and understanding a doctor’s order.
The transportation department’s training program reviews the requirements with new and current drivers, and uses a set of standards and a score sheet for testing.
First, new hires and drivers and aides who are up for their annual refresher complete a day of classroom training. That covers details on procedures and the equipment they will use, different types of disabilities and medical conditions, and strategies to help them support those students.
A nurse demonstrates medical procedures they may need to follow, such as administering an EpiPen or Diastat for a seizure, if that is part of a doctor’s order. Trainers also discuss the blue book, which includes a transportation form for every special-needs student aboard the bus, says Marjorie Morgan, a safety officer for the district.
Trainers also demonstrate on a bus how to put a wheelchair on the lift correctly; secure five-point and three-point harnesses; and the differences between general-education and special-needs evacuations.
Trainees are then tested on the information they learned in class, and a minimum of 80% is required to pass. They can review the information and take the test again if needed.
The next steps are a day of hands-on training with equipment — four to six hours, based on their needs — and a review of the procedures and information they learned in class and will use on the job.
Next is the SNPPT. If trainees don’t pass the first time (only 100% is a passing score), they get additional training and can take the test again.
“There can’t be any mistakes, for example, in how we secure equipment,” Mitchell says.
Once they pass and are hired, they receive an annual refresher and retest to maintain the status of a special-needs driver or attendant.
This extensive training also serves as effective cross-training.
Morgan notes that some prospective drivers become general-education bus drivers instead of special-needs bus drivers, but having gone through the training for the SNPPT familiarizes them with what special-needs service entails. That enables them to assist special-needs staff when needed.
“If someone [mentions] a car seat or a safety vest, they would remember it from class,” Morgan says. “Sometimes they can help us. That’s why we always cross-train.”
Hands-on training for equipment installation to get trainees comfortable doing it is very important, Morgan says.
“We want to make sure [applicants] have the [necessary] strength and the agility, and understand the importance of installing all the equipment correctly,” Morgan says.
What prompted the SNPPT was equipment not being secured properly, and drivers and attendants getting injured because they weren’t able to physically do the job, Mitchell says. In response, the transportation department decided that they needed to put specific standards in place.
The transportation department revamped its training in 2010, and has added various elements to it over the years, such as the evacuation program, more hands-on training on equipment, and the mandatory physical standards, which became the SNPPT in 2011.
The standards for the test are based on the skills and abilities the department determined are necessary to perform the job through field testing with staff members.
For example, the department determined an acceptable time frame for the average person to secure a wheelchair and also incorporated the manufacturer’s standards for how to do it correctly.
“These standards have greatly changed our performance,” Mitchell adds. “Since we have been [conducting] the SNPPT, we have had fewer incidents with equipment not being properly secured, and [fewer] special-needs driver and aide injuries.”
Every year, the department tests about 400 special-needs drivers and attendants and new hires on the standards. Usually about three or four don’t pass the first time, with about half of those being unable to pass the physical portion of the test, even after retraining. Current drivers and attendants who don’t pass are taken off their route and given more training to help them pass a retest.
When she started at Greenville County Schools, Morgan was impressed with how managers kept working to improve the training program, including by attending seminars and sharing the information with trainees.
“I have heard from people from other counties who have come to work for us that [they would] put a wheelchair on the retractors, which is basically securing the wheelchair to the floor of the bus, and not even worry about the five-point harness,” Morgan said. “It sounds like a nightmare, now that I have been trained. Without training, you don’t know what’s incorrect.”
The SNPPT helps staff members stay up to date on their skills, and it makes the standards important, because they know they will be tested on them, Morgan adds.
Mitchell agrees. “It motivates them to do it right on a daily basis,” she says.
Another motivator has been a sense of pride in being a part of a district with high standards when taking part in local and national safety competitions.
“When [other districts] see that our standards are very high, I think that makes the drivers and attendants feel proud,” Mitchell says.
The next step in evolving the SNPPT training was boosting information retention, Mitchell says.
“We noticed that even though we were [providing] training, some of the employees were not retaining [the information].”
When the department only provided classroom training, they noticed that trainees retained about 50% of the information, so they moved to repetitive training.
“During the classroom training, we introduce everything we are going to train on in the next few days,” Mitchell says. “Then we do a hands-on training, and the review for the [SNPPT]. If we do it three times, trainees usually pass at 100%.”
Costs for the program have been minimal. Equipment, such as WC19-compliant wheelchairs, has been donated by manufacturers.
Additionally, paying for the training pays off; it prevents other problems, Mitchell noted.
“The program costs versus the costs of the injuries that we had — we have nowhere near that cost for injuries right now.”
Although the test can indicate which prospective and current drivers and aides may have the physical abilities or mental agility required for the job, the greatest necessities for drivers and aides may be a love for the kids and patience.
“It’s not for everybody,” Morgan says. “First, you’ve got to have the heart. Then, you have to have patience. You have children who, because of their disability, may scream at the top of their lungs for the whole hour-and-a-half you are driving them to school. That’s who they are, and you have to relate to that.”