2020 was supposed to be a year of celebration for W.L. Roenigk Inc.
Founded in 1945 by William L. Roenigk Sr., the Sarver, Pennsylvania-based school bus contractor was ready to revel in its 75th anniversary last year. But plans went out in the window as the COVID-19 pandemic brought business as usual to a halt.
As it turned out, 2020 was a year of survival.
“We’re basically surviving our way through this as best we can,” says Sue Roenigk, president of W.L. Roenigk Inc. “It’s been a challenge.”
With constant changes to school schedules and bus routes, adaptability has been vital for the company, which transports nearly 15,000 students for 24 school districts in western Pennsylvania. Over the past year, the Roenigk team has been tested like never before.
Into the Unknown
For W.L. Roenigk and many other school bus operators, everything changed on March 13, 2020. With COVID-19 having been declared a pandemic two days earlier, schools shut down for what was initially expected to be two weeks.
Then COVID cases started to surge throughout the northeastern U.S., including Pennsylvania. School closures were extended to May 1. Eventually, it became clear that remote learning would continue — and school buses would stay parked — for the rest of the school year.
As Sue Roenigk puts it, the general mood was, “Forget this … we’ll regroup and go back in fall.”
But as the pandemic dragged on past the summer, fall was just the beginning of an unpredictable school year.
In normal times, Roenigk says, regular daily routes settle into routines by the end of September, with essentially the same students riding each day. By contrast, in the 2020-21 school year, the routes have not become routine, even well into the spring. Roenigk gives an example from the day she spoke with SBF, in early April 2021:
“This one [school] building closed today,” she says. “That completely changed everything. We have to remember who’s riding today and who isn’t.”
Schools for special-needs students are particularly challenging when it comes to schedule changes.
“They’re very quick to shut down and go to remote immediately,” Roenigk says. For instance, “We’re thinking they’re going four days this week, then by Tuesday emails are going out that the [school for the blind] is shutting down.”
Not Fully Back to School
Most of the districts that W.L. Roenigk serves have now brought students back to the classroom four days a week. But for much of the year, a split schedule was typical: Half of the students would go to school all day on Monday and Tuesday, with the other half remote. On Wednesday, everyone would be remote. Then on Thursday and Friday, the half of students who were remote on Monday and Tuesday would go to school, and the others would be remote.
Throughout the year, because of the frequent changes due to COVID cases at schools, flexibility has been a must for everyone involved, from the students to the school bus operator.
“We have to adapt to different schedules at a moment’s notice,” Roenigk says. “We have different routing every day.”
With W.L. Roenigk serving two dozen districts, they have to keep track of close to 170 individual school calendars. To tackle that challenge, the company has a staff member fully dedicated to the task.
“We have someone whose career is to follow calendars,” Roenigk says.
Everyone on the W.L. Roenigk team has had new tasks to handle this school year.
School bus drivers are now also mask police, making sure students are wearing face coverings as they board the bus. In between runs, the drivers pull out their disinfectant spray bottles and give the seats just enough of a misting — but not too much — before the next group of students climb aboard.
The boarding process is also different under the COVID-19 protocol. The first passengers to be picked up on a morning route are assigned to the back seats, and the boarding continues from back to front to keep students from walking by each other. On the way home in the afternoon, students unload from front to back.
With bus capacity reduced for social distancing, the split schedules helped, because only half of the students were going to school campuses on any given day. Also, the contractor has been able to mitigate the bus capacity loss by seating siblings together.
Back at the W.L. Roenigk bus yards, garage staff members give the bus interiors a more extensive spraying at the end of the day. The company uses electrostatic sprayers that don’t damage the bus seats.
“Every garage has somebody designated as sprayer,” Roenigk says. “That makes it a fairly easy process, but it’s still a process.”
When COVID shut down schools in March 2020, one of the casualties was spring sports. For contractors like W.L. Roenigk, that meant the loss of a key source of revenue: athletic trips.
“We lost all of our spring sports. That’s where payroll comes from for fall,” Roenigk says.
Then came a lifeline in the form of federal aid: The company secured funding from the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP), which carried them through their back-to-school payroll.
“The PPP money was an absolute blessing,” Roenigk says.
W.L. Roenigk’s insurance provider also helped the contractor survive the lean times.
“When we had nothing running, we were able to secure some rebates on insurance,” Roenigk explains.
Beyond that, the company wasn’t eligible for a second round of PPP money, when the maximum number of employees dropped to 300. W.L. Roenigk has 580 employees.
“Now we’re just going off of the income that we’re making from the bus runs that we’re doing,” Roenigk says. “When we get to five days [on campus per week], that will be a huge help.”
One bright spot this spring has been the return of sports.
“Fall sports was kind of hit and miss,” Roenigk says, “but for spring sports we’re pretty much back up to a normal level … which has been a big help.”
Meanwhile, a pandemic-related problem that persists for W.L. Roenigk and other contractors is getting paid for lost days. When schools switched to all remote learning in spring 2020, W.L. Roenigk wasn’t transporting students. But Sue Roenigk points out that driver pay and fuel — costs that the company didn’t incur on those lost days — only account for about 40% of their budget. Fixed costs like insurance, utilities, mechanics in the shop, etc. — “all things that have to happen,” as Roenigk puts it — make up 60% of their budget.
Roenigk has explained this to school district customers, and some have understood and made provisions through the state to pay the contractor for those lost days. But other districts haven’t gotten on board with the rationale for compensating the company for the time when schools were shut down.
“If [those] schools don’t see buses going down the road, in their mind services weren’t rendered — I’ve heard that over and over,” Roenigk says, adding that they continue to press their case for repayment. “We’re still talking. I’m hoping some people will understand the situation a little better.”
Beyond repayments and PPP money, Roenigk says the key to the company’s survival over the past year has been the commitment of their staff.
The pandemic has tested the resolve of school transportation workers. At W.L. Roenigk, many bus drivers lost a day of pay per week because of schools’ remote learning schedules. The company also had to reduce mechanics’ hours at times over the past year. Despite all that, the staff showed their dedication.
“Our people have stuck with us and have done everything that’s been asked of them,” Roenigk says. “I’m telling the world how much we appreciate them.”
The Roenigk family itself has also displayed its dedication to the student transportation business over the decades. Jeanne Roenigk, the family matriarch and vice president of the company, continues to come to the office every day at 89.
“She writes the checks,” Sue Roenigk says. “It’s still my mom’s company — we all remember that.”
Jeanne’s late husband, William L. Roenigk Sr., launched the company in 1945. Oldest son Billy Jr. helped expand the business to 10 locations before he lost his battle with leukemia in 2013.
Since then, Sue has served as president. Sister Nancy Roenigk-Stewart is secretary, and brothers Mike and Dave Roenigk serve as treasurer and director, respectively.
Besides the family name, another source of continuity for the company is their longest contract, with Freeport Area School District.
“We have been with them for 73 uninterrupted years,” Sue notes.
As for the 75th anniversary party that the company missed out on in 2020, the Roenigks hope to have some sort of celebration later this year.
As Sue says, “We’re kind of postponing that to our 76th.”
Thomas McMahon is a freelance writer and a former editor of School Bus Fleet. He has covered pupil transportation for more than 18 years. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.