COVID-19 has undoubtedly had a significant impact on the U.S., shutting down several businesses and damaging the economy. Experts have agreed that one of the many key steps to restarting the U.S. economy is to get schools back up and running. Parents will not be able to return to work until schools reopen, and remote learning has proven to be insufficient compared to in-person instruction.
But as schools look to slowly reopen across the country as COVID case numbers remain high, many parents and school district leaders are thinking hard about the health and safety of students and their families — and rightfully so.
A particular area of concern for schools as they plan their reopening is pupil transportation. District leaders must navigate the challenge of transporting multiple students while keeping in line with COVID-19 health and safety best practices. As schools cautiously move to their mass reopening phase and more students board school buses, decision makers must consider how new technologies can be utilized to keep students safe at scale.
Before the pandemic hit, about 26 million children would ride the bus to and from school. And for some students, the bus served as their only means of getting access to an education.
To have buses running for students during the COVID-19 era, school leaders must integrate new COVID-specific technologies alongside social distancing and mask best practices to maintain the health and safety of their students. Some of these technologies can be funded by CARES Act subgrants, and there are additional grant opportunities available that can help offset costs too.
A couple of technologies eligible for CARES Act subgrants include ones that electronically verify that buses are properly sanitized according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidelines. Others are ones that support contact tracing through contactless rider verification solutions. These types of technologies quickly provide schools with information on who rode which bus and when, should a rider test positive for COVID-19.
While sanitization and contact tracing technologies meet the requirements for CARES Act funding, other technologies are also available to help schools get back up and running during the pandemic.
In particular, schools looking at implementing staggered bus schedules may want to integrate further ridership verification solutions to ensure that children are not only on the right bus but getting off at right stop by putting rider information into the hands of the driver via a tablet. And parents and caregivers will more than ever want bus tracking apps to ensure that they know when their children’s bus is arriving. Some of these apps can also be used when school isn’t in session, with supplies being delivered via school bus, or just for parent notifications from the school.
Standard Tech Still Critical
School bus transportation safety in general has always been an issue, both on and off the bus. According to the National Association for Pupil Transportation (NAPT), an average of 15 students are killed each year, whether by being struck by a motorist while getting on or off the bus, waiting at the bus stop, being involved in a school bus crash, or getting struck by the bus they were riding. So far, there has never been a year where no students have died.
As schools reopen, there will not be a sense of normalcy; it may feel chaotic as bus schedules are disrupted. Alternating buses and hybrid methods of transportation limit the risk of COVID-19 exposure for passengers, but the public won’t be as familiar with the routes. This will further add to the chaos and confusion, on top of following new, stringent health and safety policies. These additional stressors can increase the risk of school bus-related accidents.
One notable way we can mitigate these unfortunate statistics is by preventing passenger motorists from ignoring stop arms on buses. Today, there are integrated stop-arm camera solutions to record the actions of stop-arm violators and automatically notify law enforcement, who will then issue citations. Some of these solutions come at no cost to school districts, as the fines cover the technology fees. This technology gives passenger motorists a reason to follow the law and drive carefully around school buses.
Safety Education is Crucial
Though COVID-19 has significantly impacted how and when schools will reopen and pupil transportation will resume, school bus safety leaders can work on implementing new technologies to keep their students safe and healthy. The future of this pandemic is uncertain, but these technology innovations are here to stay.
Besides implementing technology solutions, schools can also do their part to build and maintain a culture of safety by working with leadership, parents, and the community on a safety education program. Education on new health and safety best practices and available technology solutions is key to ensuring students can safely return to school and receive the education they need.
H. Kevin Mest is the senior vice president of passenger services for Zonar Safety Solutions.