Despite Upheaval, Leaders See Silver Linings

File photo

As we get closer to wrapping up this very unusual, challenging, and impactful year, it seems fitting to look ahead and weigh the possibilities of the long-term effects — especially any positive ones — of COVID-19 on student transportation.

At the beginning of this year, the pandemic so quickly caused school closures, which blindsided all of us, including school bus companies and many district transportation staff members. That prompted pupil transportation leaders to rapidly adapt duties and services, with drivers and other employees exhibiting amazing flexibility and dedication. They immediately stepped up to the challenge of delivering meals, repurposing school buses to serve as Wi-Fi hotspots, and increased the amount of time they spent cleaning and sanitizing buses. Meanwhile, routes were reconfigured, loading and unloading procedures were changed to accommodate social distancing, and parents were kept up to date on school services and, later, reopenings, as suppliers contributed personal protective equipment and apps and software solutions to assist in communication, contact tracing, and routing.

Unfortunately, it also caused significant financial pain for many, particularly school bus contractors (and their employees) who weren’t getting paid during school closures. One of the subjects of our “Game-Changers” profiles, Corey Muirhead, president of the New York School Bus Contractors Association and executive vice president of Logan Bus and Affiliates, brought attention to the issue of the fiscal neglect that school bus companies have been struggling with, and became a fierce advocate for these businesses that do so much more than simply run buses.

What will pandemic-related changes bring us moving forward? School Bus Fleet posed that question to some association leaders and bus manufacturers, asking them to examine the long-term impacts on various aspects of student transportation, ranging from daily driver duties to driver shortage to equity in education to a virtual future in conferences and training. Their responses show that despite the pandemic’s disruption, there are silver linings: changes such as virtual events expanding access to information and perspectives from more people in the industry. Also, the intense focus on safety measures could lead to more attention being paid to driver wellness.

And, there is a potentially positive impact on contracting. John Benish Jr., the president of the National School Transportation Association (NSTA) and CEO of Cook-Illinois Corp., noted in the roundtable-style discussion that school bus companies realized that they need to share more risk with school districts. One way that could happen: as mentioned by Curt Macysyn, NSTA’s executive director, the pandemic may usher in a “dynamic” pricing structure for contracts.

Mike LaRocco, the president of the National Association of State Directors of Pupil Transportation Services (NASDPTS) and Indiana state director, remarked that he sees “an opportunity to provide more training services as more organizations embrace distance learning and upgrade their technology to take full advantage of what virtual training can offer.”

Macysyn agreed, adding that “drivers will have more training, which is never a bad thing,” and he and Benish suggested that more attention may be focused on the overall health and wellness of drivers in the pandemic’s aftermath.

Regarding driver duties and wellness, Charlie Hood, executive director of NASDPTS, pointed out that we have all “had a crash course in public health during 2020” and are more diligent with precautions like hand washing and sanitation of surfaces, and pointed out that some reports indicate that diseases such as the flu “will be reduced as a collateral benefit of our improved health measures.”

Additionally, John Barrington, the director of product planning for Blue Bird Corp., and Ken Whisnant, the engineering manager for Thomas Built Buses, noted that onboard Wi-Fi has helped students who do not have sufficient or any connectivity at home to assist learning during virtual schooling, and will likely become more prevalent, continuing to help these students.

Although the pandemic is far from over at this point, it is reassuring to know that it has spurred some positive changes that stand to improve pupil transportation even more as we move beyond it.

About the author
Nicole Schlosser

Nicole Schlosser

Former Executive Editor

Nicole was an editor and writer for School Bus Fleet. She previously worked as an editor and writer for Metro Magazine, School Bus Fleet's sister publication.

View Bio