From administration to teaching music to routing to heading up two transportation departments, Gary Sawyer, the director of transportation for the School District of Manatee County (Fla.), is well-versed in the worlds of education and school transportation. However, as with everyone else, he faces the uncertainty of what the COVID-19 pandemic will bring months from now as schools reopen.
In this interview with School Bus Fleet, Sawyer details how his department sprung into action at the onset of the pandemic to provide meals, mobile devices, and connectivity to students in need, the success his district has seen with online learning, and potential long-term impacts on student transportation brought about by the COVID-19 crisis.
1. How did you get your start in pupil transportation?
I began my career with the District School Board of Pasco County (Fla.) in August of 1982. I spent the next 18 years as a music teacher. Following my time teaching, I became a technology specialist with Pasco County Schools before moving to the transportation department as a mapping specialist. Two years later, I was promoted to supervisor of transportation operations, and in July of 2008, I became the director of transportation. I served [in that role] until July of 2018 and retired from Pasco County Schools in January of 2019. In August of 2019, I was hired as the director of transportation and vehicle maintenance for the School District of Manatee County, where I am currently serving.
2. What do you like most about working in pupil transportation?
Simply put, I have the honor of working with an amazing team of people. No day in transportation is the same and each day brings with it new challenges, yet because of the dedication of the transportation team, our students arrive at their destinations safely each school day.
3. Your transportation department has delivered meals to students and brought school buses equipped with Wi-Fi to communities where students need connectivity for online learning. When did you start these efforts and what tasks did this entail?
We began this effort immediately following the closure of our schools [on March 23], working with various departments to plan and implement this service. We are distributing meals at select locations where Wi-Fi-equipped buses are staged. Currently, these buses provide connectivity to our students at 28 different locations around Manatee County each school day.
4. What would you say have been the positives that you have seen come out of this work to respond to the COVID-driven school closures? What about the hurdles?
We faced the challenge head-on and have successfully provided our students with devices and locations so they can have connectivity if needed. Ninety-eight percent of our students have signed in online to complete work.
The greatest hurdle was the need to provide an online learning environment in such a short period of time. Other challenges included preparing and distributing devices, installing Wi-Fi routers on buses, and identifying and securing locations where these buses could be staged. Both district and school staff have worked tirelessly to make sure the students of Manatee County could be successful in an online learning environment.
5. Does your department have plans in place yet for when schools reopen, and what kind of long-term impact do you think the COVID-19 pandemic will have on pupil transportation?
We are in the process of developing these plans. I am not sure anyone can predict the long-term impact of this pandemic.
Transporting students to school in a timely manner could be a challenge depending on recommended social distancing and/or total numbers for groups in confined areas. We could see less ridership if parents aren’t comfortable allowing their children to ride buses. Some may not be comfortable allowing their children to attend school and may look at virtual school as an option. The possibility exists that some of our drivers and attendants may choose not to return to work, adding to the driver shortage. Sanitizing our buses is something we’ve never dealt with in the past; however, we were doing so twice daily while transporting students.
With so much unknown, it’s difficult to predict what the start of school will look like in August. Right now [mid-May], there are still more questions than answers. However, we will continue to follow guidance provided by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to establish best practices.