- Photo courtesy FatCamera via iStock/Getty Images

Photo courtesy FatCamera via iStock/Getty Images

School Bus Fleet finds out more about five game-changers in the industry who are dedicated to advancing the safety and efficiency of the yellow bus during the COVID-19 pandemic.

 - Photo courtesy Tim Ammon

Photo courtesy Tim Ammon

Tim Ammon

Co-Owner, Decision Support Group
Changing the Game in: Planning

Tell us about forming Decision Support Group (DSG) and what types of services are offered.
In September 2019, Tom Platt (my longtime consulting co-conspirator) and I started DSG because we wanted to refocus on providing direct client work. DSG supports transportation providers and school districts when designing their service delivery strategies, including considering bell time changes, addressing driver recruitment and retention, and routing efficiency assessments. We also hope to expand the definition of transportation to address the broader issue of school access and promote a centralized approach to different modes of student transportation.

You are a co-manager of the Student Transportation Aligned for Return To School (STARTS) Task Force. Tell us about how the task force formed, when it formed, and what prompted creating it.
The heads of the three leading industry associations — National Association of State Directors of Pupil Transportation Services, National School Transportation Association, and National Association for Pupil Transportation — identified the need to provide industry-wide support for transportation providers even before the scope of the pandemic became well understood. They recognized that this challenge would be national in scale but local in response and that school transportation needed to begin preparing early to accommodate possible reopenings at the end of the 2019-20 school year and the start of the 2020-21 school year. DSG was fortunate, along with Jim Regan from CapitalWorks Consulting Group, to be selected as co-managers of the process. We helped guide three core committees and nearly 100 volunteers with the development of resources and tools that were provided by the Task Force.

In your role on the STARTS Task Force, you worked on its school reopening resource report. What are a couple of the most important takeaways that pupil transporters should keep in mind as in-person instruction gets underway?
The most important point that was clarified by the Task Force was that each district and transportation provider must take responsibility for and ownership of their own transportation plan. Local conditions, local requirements, and local needs must dominate the thinking on how to design the structure of the transportation response. The second most important thing is that no plan should be static. I would suggest that transportation managers take time to map out their alternatives if conditions begin changing for the better or for the worse.

What do you see as some of the long-term impacts the pandemic will have on pupil transportation and how do you foresee the industry adapting to them?
For a long time, our focus in the industry has been on designing a system that transports as many students as possible with little resources. The overwhelmingly negative reaction to physical distancing expectations on buses exposed a lack of flexibility that will become increasingly problematic as education becomes more decentralized.

I am hopeful that this experience and the demonstrated need for flexibility increases the awareness of the power of partnerships across the industry. Expanding the number of mixed-service operations will increase the resiliency of service delivery models.

Aside from that, the exponential increase in the amount of informational resources is the most hopeful thing that has come out of the pandemic response. The development of platforms that lower both out-of-pocket and time costs while increasing access to information is a shift in the way the industry thinks about professional development. While at times it can seem overwhelming, the expansion of webinars, whitepapers, articles, and blogs has notably increased the diversity of viewpoints and participants in industry conversations. That is both healthy and necessary and is a shining example of pandemic-driven innovation.

-Sadiah Thompson

 - Photo courtesy Michelle Austin

Photo courtesy Michelle Austin

Michelle Austin

Safety Manager, First Student in Council Bluffs, Iowa,and Omaha, Neb.
Changing the Game in: Work Ethic

How long have you been the safety manager for First Student’s Council Bluffs, Iowa, and Omaha, Neb., locations? Have you held other positions in pupil transportation before this one?
I have been focused on creating the best start and finish to the school day for students and their families for more than 20 years. I joined the industry in 1998 as a bus driver. The First Student location in Omaha, Neb., offered a student ride-along program, and that made the job a perfect fit. As my children grew up, I found myself with less to do at home between routes, which is why I became an office helper. After working in the office, I decided to apply for a trainer position. From there, I became a road supervisor, and then was promoted to location safety manager for the Omaha and Council Bluffs locations last October.

What types of measures have you taken to improve aspects of management at your location, such as inspections, maintenance, budgeting, etc.?
I have a strong passion for safety and enjoy working with others to help create and foster a world-class safety culture. Since becoming the location safety manager for Council Bluffs, I have updated the Iowa Department of Education’s Driver Portal and maintained qualifying information in a timely manner and updated our Online Driver Maintenance Program and organized all of the driver files. I am also responsible for hiring and training drivers at both the Omaha and Council Bluffs locations, and I investigate all accidents and injuries, which includes filing claims.

You are known for your work ethic. How would you describe your approach to tackling your workload successfully?
Prioritization is key. I make a to-do list at the end of each day and complete all tasks the following day, even when unexpected events occur. When it comes to developing and implementing safety programs, it is important to take a proactive and hands-on approach. I was behind the wheel for many years, so I can relate and empathize with our drivers and the important work they do. I praise as many employees as I can each day because providing encouragement brings positive results.

What advice would you give to other managers on handling the workload and setting an example for their employees?
I would advise other leaders to use compassion and understanding when engaging with employees, school district partners, and parents. Do not become overwhelmed with any aspect of your position. If you are unable to complete a task, ask for help. If you don’t know the answer to a question, use your resources to find it. Do not answer simply to respond. Explain the need for employee cooperation in following all rules and regulations to ensure everyone’s safety. Put people first and help others any time you can, even if it means shifting priorities.

-Sadiah Thompson

 - Photo courtesy Patrick Dean

Photo courtesy Patrick Dean

Patrick Dean

Vice President of Business Development, Dean Transportation
Changing the Game in: Technology

Dean Transportation has been known for being innovative with technology, such as using virtual reality for training. Tell us about some of the ways Dean Transportation has employed technology to help during the pandemic.
Since March, we have been able to transition many of our processes and communications to digital or paperless platforms. This included using social media to promote virtual storytime, a partnership we established with a local bookstore, to promote reading and connect our drivers and attendants to their students virtually. We also used email and text messages for weekly check-ins, Zoom chats for morning coffee, developed a virtual in-service and benefits fair, used platforms like Vimeo to publish training messages to staff, and focused on professional development webinars.

Dean Transportation recently announced it is applying an antimicrobial treatment to its buses. Are there other technologies specific to cleaning and safety onboard the bus that the company is using?
Dean Transportation was proud to be the first student transportation company to treat 100% of our over 1,600 vehicles with MicrobeCare, an antimicrobial agent. In addition to MicrobeCare, we published a website,deancleanprocess.com, in July to highlight the steps we have taken to suppress the spread of COVID-19 and communicate our safety process to the communities we serve.

On the technology side, we have developed our own health screening application. Upon entry to a Dean facility, employees are required to scan a QR code on the facility door using their mobile device. This QR code takes them to an electronic health questionnaire which is documented and distributed to the appropriate site manager. We have also leveraged the flexibility of QR codes and are deploying an application to track vehicle cleaning and other metrics related to COVID-19. Additionally, we have installed sanitizing stations at the front of each school bus.

The company announced in May that it had delivered over 300,000 meals to students. Did any particular form of technology play a role in making that process more efficient? If not technology, can you point to any practices that did?
While we used technology to monitor deliveries and vehicle utilization, shifting from a passenger transportation provider to supply delivery team was completed simply by the hard work of our team to help students get what they needed.

Have you been able to apply any technological fixes to any driver or other staffing shortage Dean Transportation may be experiencing?
We are currently holding drive-thru and outdoor hiring events, lowering the number of new team members in classes, and coming up with unique ways to recruit new drivers. We have also increased our use of digital marketing for job opportunities, are holding Zoom interviews, and are leveraging web analytics to monitor our recruitment activities.

In mid-2019, you told SBF that the company was “investing heavily in artificial intelligence-based platforms to leverage operations and vehicle data.” Is Dean Transportation still working on that? If so, what is the latest and what benefits is the company realizing from it?
Currently, we utilize a Microsoft product, PowerBi, to link multiple databases to measure our operations. This type of data visualization helps us pull from many different systems, allowing us to be more predictive in our decision-making processes. One of the newest uses for this technology has been for personal protective equipment (PPE). Having this technology in place has allowed us to deploy an inventory tracking and distribution system to monitor usage, schedule deliveries, and track sourcing of PPE to maintain supply levels at our sites.

-Sadiah Thompson

When schools closed during the COVID-19 pandemic, Corey Muirhead advocated for contractors to be paid by their districts. He is seen here at the podium in a Hurricane Dorian relief event last year. - Photo courtesy Corey Muirhead

When schools closed during the COVID-19 pandemic, Corey Muirhead advocated for contractors to be paid by their districts. He is seen here at the podium in a Hurricane Dorian relief event last year.

Photo courtesy Corey Muirhead

Corey Muirhead

Executive Vice President, Logan Bus Co. Inc. and Affiliates
President, New York School Bus Contractors Association
Changing the game in: Contractor Advocacy

When the pandemic first hit, you began writing and speaking out about how school bus contractors were not getting paid due to school closures, seriously jeopardizing their businesses. About how many contractors reached out to you and when?
Most schools closed in New York on or around March 13. I spoke to about 10 to 15 contractors that Saturday, March 14. Over the course of the next few weeks, that number tripled. Being a part of something bigger than me was great. It was important that contractors stuck together — whether they be from New York, California, Wisconsin, New Jersey, Illinois, or Pennsylvania — and shared knowledge as a national industry.

You have also offered advice on how contractors can negotiate with districts to get paid for some or all of their contracts. What is the most important thing for them to know or do when negotiating?
The most important thing is for them to understand that they are allowed to negotiate. They can’t be afraid to ask for what is rightfully theirs. Taking the legalities out of it, the money had already been budgeted for 2019 transportation to the districts. During the negotiation process, they have to educate the district boards about how much goes on behind the scenes in a school bus company and that “services” are not just the buses running. Districts pay for far more services than just the physical transportation, be it the background/drug check and various certifications or the DOT [New York State Department of Transportation] inspections. If we were to continue those services, we deserved to be paid.

About how many school bus company staff members in New York have been laid off or furloughed due to companies not getting paid during the pandemic? About how many school bus companies in New York have had to permanently shut their doors?
Public and private combined, 125,000 drivers, matrons, mechanics, and staff. We don’t yet know the true number of how many companies permanently shut their doors, because companies are trying to see if they can make it work. But one of the largest private companies in New York, with over 1,400 employees, had to file bankruptcy.

It seems like you did quite a bit of legal research into the issue of whether districts were required to pay contractors. Were you familiar with this issue or is it new to you?
I was not. Like most things I do at work, I applied myself and became obsessed with this task. I printed countless contracts, did the research, asked questions, stayed up at night. I would be remiss not to mention NSTA [the National School Transportation Association], as well as the New York team at Gotham Government Relations. They did a significant amount of research as well. I constantly communicated with and relied on them for their information and knowledge.

Is the situation in New York improving?
It is most certainly improving. Personally, we’ve negotiated settlements with all of our districts. We were happy to reopen our doors and get back to work. I am happy to report that most New York contractors have done the same.

What positive developments have you seen come out of this?
The intricacies and complexities of running a school bus company are on the forefront of the public stage regarding the reopening of schools. Our industry is getting the attention it deserves. This is an eye-opening revelation for many people.

What lessons have you learned from this experience?
First, cream always rises to the top. Second, the school bus industry is recession-proof but not pandemic-proof. Lastly, if we can get through this, we can get through anything.

-Thomas McMahon

 - Photo courtesy Shannon Weber

Photo courtesy Shannon Weber

Shannon Weber

Transportation Supervisor, Kyrene School District in Tempe, Ariz.
Changing the Game in: Management

As the president-elect of the Transportation Administrators of Arizona (TAA), you helped put together the association’s first virtual conference. Tell us about what that entailed, and what lessons the association may take from it for future events.
The preparation and transition of our annual summer conference from in-person to a virtual platform was a decision driven by the COVID-19 pandemic and its social restrictions for the safety of our membership. I relied heavily on those from our executive board — creating the courses, classrooms, schedule, and ensuring we had enough space for as many virtual attendees as were interested. The pandemic also allowed for some reflection and excitement in our future plans to offer a dual platform for different coursework through the school year and provide additional participation opportunities.

What are some key measures that you are hearing TAA members say they are taking to address concerns of staff, students, and parents?
Some of the procedures that are being implemented include: one to two vacant seats behind the bus driver when possible, increased sanitization of high-touch surfaces, requiring masks on board, social distancing, and providing hand sanitizer for students. Additionally, daily health checklists will be visible to offer guidance to families when deciding if students should attend school. Many school districts are still offering an online option for students who choose to continue remote learning. I believe the choice is helpful and may also, for a short time, reduce the number of riders on each bus.

As a transportation supervisor, how has planning for school reopening gone for you? What key changes have you implemented?
Planning for the return of our students has gone well, but of course has presented challenges along the way. Each of our buses has the proper PPE, and additional sanitizing/disinfecting training has been delivered to staff. Our district is also communicating safety expectations to students and their families. One of the challenges we are facing right now is a higher than normal amount of vacant bus driver positions, but we are continuing to pursue candidates to fill those gaps.

Would you say managing your transportation department has changed significantly during the pandemic? If so, how?
When the pandemic drove the decision of a stay-at-home order, we had to adapt with a temporary change to my leadership style. Keeping staff engaged, refreshed, and informed was critical. In addition to preparing training modules, ensuring email was accessible and sharing other communication platforms, like Zoom, was important so we could connect frequently. These tools and the confidence to use them allowed us to meet in small groups, offer role-specific training, and come together as a team for open discussion.

You shared steps with SBF in 2019 on boosting morale. Have you taken any of these steps — or others — to improve staff morale during the pandemic?
The biggest change in management has been day-to-day communication. I believe that celebrating the small things and recognizing successes are great contributions to a cohesive team. During our normal operations as well as during the pandemic, we have worked to spotlight staff — whether through email recognition or a prize drawing — who have excelled in their efforts or even offered their assistance to others.

We carefully chose a theme for our 2020-21 school year, knowing it would be a year like no other. This year’s theme is “fluidity:” the property of flowing easily, smooth elegance, or grace; the quality or state of being fluid. I remind staff often that we do this type of work well every day — we adapt, adjust, navigate detours, and remain aware and engaged for students and safety.

-Sadiah Thompson

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