Despite the many stops and starts, school districts across the country are now ending this relentlessly unforgettable 2020-21 school year.
We have seen some bright spots along the way, of course, including a success story out of Pennsylvania of a school bus company has made it through the pandemic.
The family-run W.L. Roenigk Inc. marked its 75th anniversary just as COVID-19 hit. Instead of celebrating, they had to figure out — just like so many other companies — how to hold on. And the Roenigks have, thanks to their resilience and adaptability as well as that of their dedicated employees.
One main change they had to adapt to was keeping track of constant scheduling changes, often on a dime, the company’s president, Sue Roenigk, told School Bus Fleet. That has entailed staying on top of 170 individual school calendars, which is now the entire job of one staff member.
In our re-introduced annual contractor survey (we paused it last year due to the onset of the pandemic hitting so many operations so hard), we saw the expected changes in routine brought about by COVID-19: ramped-up sanitization and disinfection on buses and in facilities, required masks and personal protective equipment (PPE), and social distancing and restricting the numbers of staff members who could gather.
Some good news: nearly one-third of survey respondents reported receiving CARES Act funds, mainly in the form of PPP loans, to help bring back furloughed employees and retain drivers as well as cover sanitization and PPE expenses.
As they work to bounce back, however, contractors report that they are dealing with a pronounced shortage: about half of survey respondents selected either our “severe” (34%) or “desperate” (14%) categories.
That is also reflected in another recent survey, this one conducted by child ridesharing company HopSkipDrive. In those results, more than three-quarters of respondents (78.46%) said that the shortage has “constrained their operations.”
Still, there was a bright side highlighted in that survey. Of the six takeaways shared, the final centers on adjustments made in response to the pandemic that led to better ways of operating. Those included, as one respondent said, an opportunity to create succession planning through lead driver staff; social distancing forced those drivers to communicate with other drivers in the field.
“We experienced a lot of pivots this year and a high level of communication was needed to garner trust and buy in. The lead drivers helped successfully facilitate a lot of positive change.”
And that important piece about trust was echoed by Keith Terry, the director of transportation at Orangeburg County (S.C.) School District, the subject of one of our recent “5 Questions” Q-and-As. He told SBF that showing patience with and listening to staff members with concerns and recommendations during what is still a very trying time has built trust and helped retain employees.
Meanwhile, during all the COVID-related challenges, our contractor survey also indicated that the spark of school buses going electric has by no means dulled. Just less than 10% of respondents that said they are buying new buses for the 2021-22 school year noted plans to add electric buses to their fleets. That’s down ever so slightly from the 2019 survey results, pre-pandemic. (Check out more survey results in our June/July issue.)
We have seen in recent news that electrification keeps evolving. In our story on what experienced pupil transporters have learned while operating electric buses in their fleets, three offer advice on long-term planning, charging and costs, and giving drivers enough training time with the new buses before they get on the road.
Maybe you have some tales of triumph over the pandemic that you would like to share as this unconventional school year draws to a close. Please tell us about them in the comments section below.