After-school activities like sports, clubs, and music programs can help students in countless ways. But what if students don’t have a way to get home afterward? Many students rely on district-provided transportation to participate in these events.
School Bus Fleet reached out to student transportation contractors to participate in a discussion about the importance of after-school transportation and other issues facing their operations. Here are their responses:
SBF: Why do you believe after‐school transportation is important, and who all does it benefit?
John Benish Jr. (Cook-Illinois Corporation): After-school transportation is a huge help for students, especially underclassmen who do not drive yet. This helps with additional tutoring, help in other classes, and student athletes who might not have a ride home after practices. We have and still provide all types of shuttles and rides home for most of our high schools. It’s also much safer for students to ride to and from school on a school bus. Let’s remember, the #1 killer of teens is and has been for a long time: auto accidents. We know this, so why allow students to drive to school in the first place?
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Ruta Narayan (Zum): It’s one of the fundamental reasons Zum exists in a way. In affluent neighborhoods or districts, usually one of the parents is not working, so they can afford to stay at home and drive the kids around and take them in their own personal vehicles. The real people who suffer are parents who can’t afford to leave their job, and kids of low-income families or kids with special needs. It is very hard for them to go to the enrichment programs unless the program itself is at school, where the options are very limited, or possibly not even available. That is where Zum comes in as an option. We become an extension of the transportation network, and essentially are able to provide them with the same infrastructure for taking the students in groups as needed.
Bob Ramsdell (National Express LLC): Now more than ever, parents and guardians depend upon our essential transportation services each day. We believe that our students, parents, and guardians benefit from this service as they can rely on us, when it may be impossible for some, especially working families, to pick up their child at school and bring them home. Similarly, we help get students to and from their extracurricular activities after school. Scheduling is key as is the ability for kids to participate in activities following the COVID pandemic.
Miriam Ravkin (HopSkipDrive): After‐school transportation is incredibly important, as it enables all students to get to extracurricular activities, including sports, music lessons, appointments and more. Extracurricular activities are shown to improve students’ academic performance, explore interests, build self‐esteem, get real‐world experience in CTE programs and internships, develop social relationships and more. However, with many parents working during the day, transportation to extracurricular activities can be a challenge, particularly for at‐risk youth. If they can’t get there, they can’t take advantage of the rich opportunities afforded.
Transportation to extracurricular activities can be a challenge, particularly for at‐risk youth. If they can’t get there, they can’t take advantage of the rich opportunities afforded. Many schools, districts, and counties use HopSkipDrive to get students to extracurricular activities as well as school.
SBF: How has your operation confronted the challenge of the ongoing driver shortage in recent months? Are you finding effective methods for hiring and retaining staff?
Benish: The driver shortage issue continues here in the Midwest. It has been a little better the last couple of months, but we do not see a big rebound yet. It’s more than just drivers: it’s techs, office help, managers, etc. We are doing everything imaginable to keep operating while short, doubling routes, extra recruiting, and paying more to existing employees. We have not had just one thing help with this, it has been a combination of a lot of things that has helped, but we are still severely short.
Narayan: School transportation is an essential service. If the kids don’t go to school, districts don’t get paid. They have to make sure the kids are able to attend. So much of day-to-day life is disrupted otherwise. During the pandemic, so much of the population was older and close to retirement. Much of the younger population was not entering the workforce for the school transportation industry. Many people decided to take early retirement, which led to heavy driver shortage issues. The shortage is across the board, but it really affects transportation in particular because students can’t attend school when the driver doesn’t show up. Interestingly, Zum faced less than a 5% driver shortage in our districts. We provide an excellent work environment, the use of technology elevates the work and invites the younger generation into the workforce; a mixed-sized fleet also reduces the dependency on school bus drivers, since they work a very highly trained job. That’s another reason for us having less of a shortage than districts that are only relying on school buses and school bus drivers.
Ramsdell: We are constantly recruiting for great drivers, leveraging new technologies for wider reach of candidates, and are increasingly using data to identify target audiences for recruitment. We are always working to come up with creative ways to attract and retain drivers. Because of the demand and competition, we continue to implement new incentives, tailored to markets, to attract and keep qualified candidates. Our drivers are critically important team members.
Ravkin: HopSkipDrive has, in fact, solved bus driver shortages in many areas by filling in for inefficient bus routes with HopSkipDrive rides. In just one case, Tolleson ISD in Arizona uses HopSkipDrive in a hub‐and-spoke transportation model, bringing students from their homes to a centralized bus stop.
SBF: What state or local regulatory issues are on your radar?
Benish: School bus-specific CDL’s. Getting paid for days off or COVID days.
Narayan: Different states have different things we’re looking at. For example, Washington state and Seattle are currently talking about benefits, whether the state should pay for the benefits or the district, or the provider, etc. Another piece of legislation we’re looking at is in California. Transportation is highly restricted in terms of a very small percentage of transportation is provided to the student population. There is a bill to expand that to every child in need of student transportation. We’re also paying attention to the infrastructure bill by President Joe Biden, which is investing funding into turning the existing diesel buses into electric buses, which will accelerate the adoption of EVs into the school industry.
Ramsdell: Given the issues at hand, we are always monitoring CDL and school bus endorsement licensing process issues in the states in which we operate. At the federal level, we are also closely watching the Entry-Level Driver Training (ELDT) implementation. The future of our industry is electrification and school buses are the perfect case study for it. We are a leader in sustainability and are also always monitoring electric vehicle incentives that can help us get cleaner fuel technology to our customers quicker. Describe some of the biggest challenges you’ve seen in the pupil transportation industry, particularly in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. Are issues related to the pandemic going away as it appears to be winding down?
Benish: The largest changes in school bus transportation post-COVID to me is obviously the lack of a full workforce. Yes, the issues due to the pandemic are for sure almost gone. Most of our schools are back to a normal, full day. Including after school activities, summer school, and field trips.
Narayan: The pandemic was such a shock to the entire system because we used to think schools never closed. But the closing of schools for such a long period made people realize how important school infrastructure and being physically present is. There is a large emphasis on and revived commitment to school infrastructure. When schools closed, districts realized they needed digitalization. Schools were able to use technology to quickly come up with a socially distanced route as rules changed during the pandemic. Districts realized they need that flexibility with vehicle sizes because one size doesn’t fit all. There were also lots of issues related to social distancing in vehicles, but that is winding down now that vaccinations are available for children.
Ramsdell: Over the last 2.5 years, we have seen our industry adapt and evolve due to constraints brought on by COVID. In the early days of the pandemic, we were able to pivot and ensure that our team members and passengers remained safe during this period by implementing sanitization and safety protocols. However, the single biggest issue we have seen – with long-term implications – is the impact on the labor market. In our more than a century of operating, we have never been faced with this great of a need for qualified drivers.
Ravkin: The COVID‐19 pandemic has impacted pupil transportation and continues to do so. Existing bus driver shortages have gotten worse because of the proliferation of bus drivers who retired due to pandemic concerns. As students return to school full‐time, a HopSkipDrive report shows shortages now constrain 88% of districts’ transportation operations vs. last year, when 78% of districts reported constraints due to shortages. In addition, 63% of districts said that COVID‐19 still has a negative impact on their operations.
SBF: Has your operation seen delays in the fleet replacement cycle due to manufacturer backlogs and supply chain issues? Have any of those improved in recent months?
Benish: Yes, fleet replacement and new school bus purchases are getting very difficult. Many new bus orders are at a minimum of a year behind at best. No used buses for sale, and it seems this is going to be a problem for at least the next two years. Especially type A buses. Obtaining parts for existing buses has also been a large problem.
Narayan: The supply chain has created issues across the board for all vehicles. To prevent the delays, we’ve worked directly with the manufacturers and suppliers. We’ve ensured commitments ahead of time with the vehicles we’ll provide to schools in new contracts. I would say that because of those relationships, we’ve minimized the effect of the supply chain crisis. Ramsdell: Yes, we have seen major backups and long wait times. They have not improved.
SBF: How focused is your operation on shifting to electric or other alternative fuel buses? If yes, why? If not, why not?
Benish: We purchased two full-sized EV buses almost three years ago, and we’re off to a good start. We will be purchasing more. We do feel this could be the future. But, with outfitting our current locations with enough power and chargers, we feel this is not currently cost effective. We have found out that outfitting a current bus yard is going to be seven times more expensive than previously thought. EV buses are the future, but not a cost-effective alternative for at least 10 more years.
Narayan: Our vehicles were 100% carbon neutral starting in January of 2021. We hope to be 100% electric by 2025. We’ve got our first batch of EV buses going in the (San Francisco) Bay area in two school districts. We have secured grants to transition 35 additional school buses into EVs for one of those school districts — Oakland Unified — by the end of the year. That will mean 50% of the fleet for that district is electrified. We continue to look at all the alternatives in the area given the constraints of the supply that’s available, as well as battery prices.
Ramsdell: We are keenly focused on shifting from diesel to electric vehicles. As part of a parent company with an international reach, we have significant experience in this space and are excited to use this experience as we begin to electrify our school buses. We are moving forward quickly to increase the number of near zero emissions vehicles (NZEVs) and zero emissions vehicles (ZEVs) in our fleet and participate in projects to help the industry learn about the technologies, such as a vehicle-to-grid (V2G) pilot recently concluded in White Plains, NY. Sustainability is a significant priority for our company.
Ravkin: HopSkipDrive will play a vital role in the electrification of student transportation. Using HopSkipDrive’s route optimization solutions to replace inefficient bus routes, districts can reduce the overall number of buses in their fleet and reduce the investment required to replace their diesel bus fleets with electric ones. In addition, HopSkipDrive’s CareDriver vehicle network significantly outperforms regular passenger vehicles in the progression to zero‐emission. While less than 2% of vehicles in the U.S. are hybrid or EV, 19% of CareDriver vehicles are hybrid or EV. In Seattle, one of our largest markets, 40% of CareDriver vehicles are hybrid or EV. Over the next few years, we will introduce programs and partnerships that enable even more CareDrivers to transition to EVs.
SBF: What changes do you anticipate in the next five years as we see growth beyond school bus-only operations?
Benish: We expect to see a growing market for special-needs student transportation, and more routes. We still feel the yellow bus is the safest way to and from school. Alternative transportation and rideshares can help a little, but the reality is that every child deserves the safest ride to and from school. That is why the yellow school bus continues to be the right choice for school transportation.
Narayan: Our focus is to serve our districts and provide an amazing service experience across the board. We are expanding across the nation too and providing this service to additional states and districts. We want to bring in this amazing service model and technology to more districts across the country. The transition to sustainability and EVs is also very core to the mission of Zum and is something we’re working on actively with all of our partners and making the maximum impact in that area. Ramsdell: We anticipate that the pivot to EV will change our industry overall, and it will be extremely beneficial for our customers and the communities that we serve while further preserving our environment. We expect to see a greater increase in the use of technology and data, an approach we have been utilizing for years.
Ravkin: We anticipate an increase in districts using flexible, sedan‐based solutions, such as hub‐and‐spoke models, and solving for inefficient bus routes by introducing a dynamic driver supply. We also expect utilizing data‐driven SaaS solutions to solve constraints such as driver shortages, extended time in transit, the need for staggered bell times, and more while optimizing all aspects of transportation operations.