According to the American School Bus Council, 480,000 school buses carry approximately 25 million children to and from school each day, with the average school bus logging 12,000 miles a year.

As the price of buses, fuel and insurance continues to increase, so does the cost of providing this service. As a result, fleet managers find themselves in stiff competition with other support services in and out of the classroom as they look for dollars to support their fleets.

Many school districts are choosing to hold onto their buses longer to meet tight budgets. In fact, the Environmental Protection Agency reports that more than half of today’s school buses have been in service for more than 10 years. It makes sense, then, that more attention is being paid to caring for and maintaining buses to extend their useful life — everything from preventive maintenance schedules and daily trip inspections to examining seats for signs of wear.

There is no doubt that school bus seats take a beating, and often they show it. In many cases, the damage is intentional, with vandalism identified as the number one reason for damage to seat covers.

But wear, too, makes a significant contribution to seat damage, with the seat back often showing signs of stress before the seat cushion. That’s because children tend to grab the back of the seat in front of them as they get up, putting extra stress on the cover and the foam underneath. As the seat cover wears, the vinyl begins to crack and flake away (or be picked away by little fingers), exposing the cloth underneath.

The extent of wear damage varies according to a variety of factors. For example, the number of students, their ages and their size can influence the degree of wear. So can the number of runs a bus makes in a defined period of time and the number of days per year a bus is in service.

Weather, too, can impact the life expectancy of a seat cover. Temperature extremes and direct sunlight take a toll, which is why seat manufacturers have introduced vinyl covers that provide protection against the damage caused by ultraviolet rays.

Here are steps that school transportation operations can take to effectively care for and, when needed, replace school bus seat covers:

1. For fleets in areas where sun and heat are a regular occurrence, change the direction a bus is parked so that each day a different side of the bus absorbs the sun’s rays.

2. Nothing takes the place of a regular cleaning schedule when the goal is to extend the life of a bus seat cover. A simple monthly regimen requires nothing more than mild soap and water. Anything harsher and you run the risk of damaging the vinyl.

3. As you clean the seat cover, it’s also a good idea to inspect it for damage or signs of wear. Look for blisters, cracks and torn seams. Pay particular attention to whether any foam is visible. This indicates that the fire block capability of the cover has been destroyed, and the seat cover should be replaced as soon as possible.

4. Most damage that is detected should result in a new seat cover. While it’s true that repair kits are available, it’s difficult to vouch for the consistency of the chemicals they use. Many new seat covers are designed to fit over existing covers, making installation easy.

Tony Everett is vice president of transportation solutions at HSM.

Tony Everett is vice president of transportation solutions at HSM.

5. When replacing school bus seat covers, be sure to use a reputable supplier, and always ask that materials be authenticated. Materials should meet the criteria of the school bus upholstery fire block test established by the National School Transportation Specifications and Procedures.

6. An inspection of the seat cover may reveal damage to the foam. Like a seat cover, foam can be replaced without purchasing an entire seat. However, when the decision is made to replace the foam, it often makes financial sense to replace the seat cover at the same time. Again, turn to a reputable supplier who can verify the integrity of the foam.

Seat cover manufacturers are always looking for new technologies and new manufacturing processes that will result in materials better able to withstand the ravages of time, sun and busy children. In the meantime, regular cleaning and inspections of the covers can increase their life expectancy while easing tight budgets and helping to ensure the safety of the children who use the seats every day.