With more time and resources being dedicated to student safety and route planning amid the COVID-19 pandemic, access to real-time ridership data has become even more critical for school transportation departments.
From enforcing social distancing guidelines to shortened routes and a national driver shortage heightened by the pandemic, more pupil transporters are looking to industry suppliers to help provide the data and technology needed to keep operations afloat and keep students and drivers safe on the bus.
Jason Corbally, president of routing software provider Education Logistics (Edulog), says that while the pandemic will likely disrupt the way schools operate in 2021, one of the top concerns for school districts should be providing peace of mind for the parents of students riding the bus.
“[Parents] want to know that their child was safely transported to and from school, and, in the event of exposure to Coronavirus, that the school can accurately identify all students affected through accurate ridership manifests,” he explains. “This can be accomplished through the integration of GPS platforms, parent communication apps, and student ridership programs.”
School Bus Fleet spoke with several suppliers, including Edulog’s Corbally, and school transportation personnel about the latest ridership tracking technology and how it has helped boost the safety and efficiency of their operations, specifically with contact tracing, streamlining parent communication, and managing sanitization practices.
Integrating Trans(parent) Reporting
This past September, Edulog teamed up with Internet of Things solutions supplier Samsara to introduce a new integrated solution for enhanced student safety, route planning, and parent communication — all in one.
With over 30 combined years in school transportation management, the companies’ shared platform allows customers to leverage Samsara data directly in Edulog’s Parent Portal and its route management system, according to Jordan Gilbertson, a product manager for Samsara.
“This enables school districts to perform contact tracing with visibility into student ridership and streamline parent communications by proactively sharing real-time school bus ETAs, route updates, and more in an easy-to-use mobile app,” Gilbertson says.
With Samsara ID Card Readers and real-time GPS tracking, schools can capture data on when and where students board and disembark from their buses. Additionally, Samsara provides granular GPS trip histories and historical ID card scans to help schools and parents track student ridership, allowing users to know exactly which students ride the bus and with whom at any given time.
Roger Miller, the transportation manager at East Allen County Schools in New Haven, Ind., says even though his district doesn’t use the ID Card Readers, it has implemented Edulog/Samsara’s tablet solution on 147 of its buses.
Since August, Miller says the solution has helped aid in route planning and in reducing daily interaction among transportation staff with electronic vehicle inspection reporting and electronic payroll/attendance (clocking in and out).
“Now, our drivers can conduct their inspections and attendance out on their bus if they don't want to come in the office, reducing our contact and possible COVID cases,” Miller says.
Additionally, he says, Edulog’s Parent Portal helped the district proactively notify parents of changes in route plans as the district recently halted in-person learning for secondary-level students due to mounting community coronavirus cases.
“Parents no longer have to call the school or transportation department because their planned stop information and bus location are right in the app,” Edulog’s Corbally explains.
Gilbertson says the two companies will continue working with school districts to develop additional offerings. He adds that within the past few months, nearly 20 school districts have started using Samsara and Edulog together via this integration.
Actionable Reports Based on Contact Tracing
Bus Guardian from CalAmp and its subsidiary Synovia Solutions provides similar features when it comes to managing COVID-related transportation challenges.
Bus Guardian can help schools deliver instant and actionable reporting of school bus ridership for drivers and students based on contact tracing, which is particularly important if a student or driver becomes ill.
The suite of solutions delivers a hygiene verification system to help administrators monitor and report on real-time sanitization efforts. It also features trip inspection and payroll integrations to help the driver manage some of their daily functions via a cab-mounted tablet and/or the Synovia app.
Bryan Mitchell, a spokesperson for CalAmp/Synovia, says the two companies are currently working to improve Bus Guardian’s integrations with other software programs that school districts use, specifically around linking faults in trip inspection with creating maintenance work orders. The upgrades, Mitchell says, are set to be released soon and is the second major software upgrade after the contact tracing feature was added in the summer.
Currently, about 250 school districts are using Bus Guardian for their operations. In 2019 — pre-pandemic — Loudon County (Va.) Public Schools conducted a pilot of Bus Guardian’s student ridership tracking feature, according to Jeanmarie Ciaci, the district’s transportation operations specialist.
“Now, with the pandemic, it has made contact tracing for COVID easier because you have the ability to know when [students are] getting on and where exactly they sat [on the bus],” Ciaci says. “Moving forward, the capabilities are going to be amazing for what [Bus Guardian] can do. If you could imagine how it’s helped during a pandemic, afterwards it’s going to make it that much better for our operations.”
Ciaci says the district initially piloted the software on 10 of its special-needs buses before the pandemic, using the student ridership feature to account for Medicaid reimbursement reporting.
Electronic Seating Charts, Bus Cleaning Checks
Since 2013, SMART tag has been providing student ridership authorization using an onboard tablet for drivers to use, making sure students get on the right bus and get off at the right stop.
SMART tag provides portals for the transportation department, school campuses, and parents to use; GPS; electronic vehicle inspections; electronic seating charts; automated ridership and special education monthly reimbursement reporting, among other reports.
“With our electronic seating charts and recorded daily rider attendance it’s easy to determine which students have been sitting in proximity to a student that tests positive for COVID-19,” says Brett Taylor, SMART tag’s product marketing manager. “As a result, a school district can contact the parents of those students to inform them that their child may have been exposed to COVID-19.”
Rhonda Davis, the director of transportation for Lake Travis Independent School District (ISD) in Austin, Texas, says her district uses the seating chart to conduct a thorough contact tracing investigation if there is ever a positive COVID case reported on a bus.
“We’ll pull the video footage from our video cameras, and we'll use the SMART tag seating chart,” Davis says. “SMART tag will also help us see how long that particular student who tested positive was on the bus.”
Additionally, Davis says, SMART tag has made it easier for drivers to identify students, who are now required to wear masks on board, by using the Smart tag ID badge that students scan when they board and exit the bus.
While several features and products have been added over the years in response to the requests and needs of school districts, COVID-19 has brought about two new safety features for SMART tag, Taylor says. The first is a driver wellness check screen at login requiring the driver to declare if they have been COVID-19 symptom free for the past 14 days. The second feature is a post-trip reminder to sanitize the bus according to the school district’s requirements.
At Lake Travis ISD, Davis says their cleaning and disinfecting process takes about 35 minutes and is conducted twice a day: once in the morning and once in the afternoon.
“SMART tag gives us that feeling of safety, knowing that the bus has been cleaned, knowing that we are letting [students] off at the right place and with the right person on the right bus,” she adds. “It’s all about their safety.”