When given a mission to accomplish, leaders must determine the most appropriate actions to get the desired results. Faced with the prospect of returning to school in August 2020 amid the COVID-19 pandemic, our department was tasked with putting together a plan that met specific guidelines for transporting our district’s students.
Our district, Baldwin County (Ala.) Public Schools, determined that we were going to start school in person and virtually Aug. 12. With our assigned task, our department went to work.
Challenges = Opportunities
Adverse challenges bring leadership challenges. These are opportunities for personal and professional development. As the transportation coordinator, it is my job to set the tone and develop a clear plan of action. I am beyond lucky to have strong team members in my department who support those efforts with a clear understanding that open dialogue is necessary to achieve at the highest level.
When developing an initial reopening plan, we wanted to cover every variable we could think of. We had our route specialist talk to bus drivers, many of whom are parents, guardians, and grandparents. This gave us an understanding of the fears and stigma of returning to brick-and-mortar instruction. Moreover, this gave our team an understanding of what our department was expected to provide while safely transporting our most precious cargo.
After receiving the challenge from the superintendent, I met first with my fleet manager, Glenn Brown. He had an excellent understanding of some of the barriers we were facing — Glenn was a paramedic in a former life. This skill set adds a dynamic that most districts do not have.
For example, Glenn said we needed to bring in an epidemiologist to help our department develop a plan for sanitizing school buses. This included identifying products that would be suitable to use on the buses, teaching our staff how to use them, and determining what personal protective equipment (PPE) should be used while sanitizing. The epidemiologist also provided our department with safety data sheets for each chemical we would use. This was handy, especially for giving the drivers peace of mind.
Next, we had to determine how buses would be sanitized. I knew right away I could not have mechanics trying to sanitize, inspect, and repair buses. I also knew that we could not have bus drivers sanitizing their buses after a.m. and p.m. routes for multiple reasons. We worked with the Human Resources and Payroll departments to hire bus drivers to work additional hours to sanitize buses. This was ideal because bus drivers want to take on extra responsibility to keep each other safe.
We trained the drivers who took on the sanitizer role on everything we learned from the epidemiologist. We developed sign-in and check-off sheets for everyone who would be on the bus. While drivers were working as sanitizers, they were required to have the bus video running to ensure proper checks and balances. We turned one of our training rooms into a distribution center for cleaning supplies.
Our assigned sanitizers also keep inventory and report concerns when they notice buses not being properly cleaned. The route specialist assists when a sanitizer is absent, and that has been instrumental in closing any potential sanitization gaps.
With our sanitizers in place, our next steps included hands-on training for bus drivers at each school, establishing clearly defined protocols, and communicating clearly with schools, parents, and community members about the plan. We also made videos to share with the drivers on how to properly sanitize the buses, including using the assigned sprayers and trained them on using PPE. We encouraged schools to share these videos with the community.
School districts throughout the country have had to develop their plans mostly from scratch. We were no different. In preparing for the unique challenges of returning to school, here’s what we learned:
- All the ideas in the world are just ideas unless you provide quality leadership. As the leader, you are ultimately accountable; own that accountability to yourself and your team. They will begin to do the same. Then, your best laid plans can come to fruition.
- The saying that 20% of the people do 80% of the work is mostly true. Identify those people in your departments and use them. They are integral to any leader’s success. Find ways to engage the other 80%. Provide missions for them to accomplish. When people have purpose, they will surprise you.
- For the few that only see the negative in anything you do, keep them focused on tasks that require minimal thought. These people are energy pirates and can easily pull others along with them. This is a constant battle with some employees, but as a leader, you must do your best to remain fair and consistent to offset their negativity.
- Be empathetic to the needs of your staff — or in our case, team members, as we call them. With the stresses of driving, make sure to prioritize family and personal health. I let my team members know all the time that family and health come first. Sometimes that puts an extra burden on the rest of the team but because we make it a priority, they all step up when a team member needs time away.
Pupil transportation departments throughout the nation and the world have faced the daunting task of preparing to transport students. No matter the plan you developed, nothing could have come together without leadership from you and your team members.
Now go attack “The Daunting Task!”