Gone are the days when children boarded the yellow bus and parents never actually knew if they made it to their destination. Thankfully, recent technology has brought significant advancements to transportation tracking, allowing parents and school staff to see which students “checked in” via tablet or card scan and follow along for the ride. Domino’s did it for pizza, and now fleet tech companies have applied the same idea to kids on the bus.
A 2021 study, commissioned by Zonar and conducted by The Harris Poll, found that 75% of parents want greater visibility into their child’s journey on the bus to and from school. Now, that peace of mind is easily attainable thanks to new solutions by several transportation technology providers.
Rider Tracking Benefits
There are numerous reasons why parents and school districts alike embrace rider tracking apps.
“Safety is the foundation that education stands on,” said Weston Bartlett, sales manager at Tyler Technologies and former transportation director. “If students are not safe, they cannot be educated, and to keep students safe, you must know where they are. Ridership solutions help districts to do just that.”
Thanks to GPS integration, parents can track when the bus is close so students can board on time without needing to stand in the elements for extended periods. Real-time push notifications keep them informed when the child boards and departs the bus and communicates any schedule changes.
One district using Edulog even reported a 75% decline in the number of phone calls from parents once the app was implemented.
But it’s not just parents that benefit from these apps. For school districts and bus drivers, ridership data is actionable information that can help if a student gets on the wrong bus or gets off at the wrong stop. The data provides an accurate rider log for each bus in case of an accident, too. “From a security standpoint, knowing who is actually on a bus is critical in case of a security issue when first responders need to know the situation,” said H. Kevin Mest, SVP & GM, Passenger Services at Zonar. “The school bus is an extension of the classroom, and the same security risks and concerns apply.”
It can also support contact tracing, which proved critical during the pandemic and transition back to in-person learning.
Brett Taylor, product marketing manager at SMART tag, added: “Although the student safety and security reasons alone are justification for this type of technology, there are also the benefits of turn-by-turn directions for new drivers or during field trips. Plus, electronic pre/post-trip inspections to keep buses safe for transporting students, GPS to know where all your buses are at, knowing which students are on the bus by name, and the data each tablet provides of the route activity becomes the data needed to improve optimization of your routes.”
Tips for Picking the Right App
If your school is ready to implement or upgrade this tech, start by asking a potential vendor about its parent-facing app, advised Bill Westerman, vice president of product management at CalAmp. Check reviews in the Apple App Store or Google Play Store and see if it has a large install base. “If so, that positive response and adoption are a testament to an underlying system that is easy-to use, reliable, and well-integrated into the daily student transportation service,” he said.
“It’s critical to have buy-in from the highest level — superintendent down and not just the transportation department,” Mest said. “It typically starts off as ridership, but by year two, districts want to use it in more locations. Having buy-in from the superintendent down allows this to happen more easily.”
Don’t forget about integration, reminded Derek Graham, consultant at Education Logistics (Edulog). Student ridership supplements information available through the computer routing system to parents and the district. Taylor agreed, adding that it’s important to ensure the system either integrates with the district’s SIS or the department’s routing software, and encouraged inquiring about a hardware replacement plan.
Miriam Ravkin, SVP of marketing at HopSkipDrive, a safe school transportation solution, added that schools should consider data privacy protections to protect secure rider information.
It’s also important to ensure that new users — including parents and school district employees — receive communication about the system and proper training to use it. “It’s a safety and communication tool first, tracking second,” Graham said.
School districts can work with a vendor to develop online or instructor-led training, instructional videos, a knowledge base, or FAQs on how to set up and use the app. By making sure all users are informed about the solution, school districts can make sure that the product delivers its full value.
“The pace of change in transportation technology is amazing, but it also makes it not-so-easy to compare apples to apples anymore,” said Kim Martin, industry engagement consultant at Tyler Technologies. “Make sure you receive a comprehensive list of features and functions and work with vendors who help guide the process. That guidance shouldn’t stop at asking what you need today, but include helping you anticipate the future needs of the district by asking the right questions.”
Martin suggested thinking through your policy if a card swipe doesn’t work, a student forgets or loses their card, gets off at the wrong stop, or tries to board a bus that isn’t for their route.
Here Comes The Bus is an award-winning mobile app that offers parents real-time location tracking and arrival alerts for their child’s school bus. With GPS standard on most school buses, Here Comes The Bus works by integrating GPS data into an easy-to-follow program with a parent-customizable geofence that defines when the alert is triggered. Additional student ridership hardware and software provides an extra layer of safety so administrators, drivers, and parents can track ridership by having students scan a code or ID card when they board and depart the bus. The student’s card scan sends a real-time notification to parents using the app. Daily reporting also helps schools to improve planning decisions and identify ridership trends.
Edulog’s Student Ridership is fully integrated with routing and Edulog’s Parent Portal, which notifies parents of bus arrivals and when students get on and off the bus. Not only does it provide parents peace-of-mind that their children are getting to and from school safely, but the transportation department can increase its efficiency by seeing which students are actually riding the bus on a daily basis.
School transportation staff can easily monitor HopSkipDrive rides in real-time; authorized users on a child’s account (often parents or caregivers) can also monitor the ride as it’s happening. This visibility throughout each stage of the ride — from a CareDriver claiming the ride to drop-off — promotes visibility and peace of mind, while streamlining communications. In addition, the HopSkipDrive team, CareDrivers, school transportation staff, and users on a child’s account can communicate directly via in-app chats or calls through masked numbers.
SMART tag claims to be the first on-board tablet solution for school bus drivers in the country, introduced in 2013. SMART tag ensures students get on the right bus and get off at the right stop, but also includes GPS, electronic pre/post-trip inspections, portals for the transportation, campuses and parents, a parent notification system, automated reports including Medicaid reports, state reporting and operations reports. SMART tag has developed its own custom print software for card printing and has six patents protecting proprietary features that bus drivers need to perform their duties and protect the safety and security of the students they transport.
Tyler Technologies offers multiple student ridership and communication solutions. Districts can utilize scan card ridership via their Tyler Drive unit or in conjunction with an on-board card scanner. Both options track exact scan times of loading and unloading. Districts can also take advantage of the Bus Attendance Mobile app for student rosters and seat assignments. All options work with either of Tyler's routing solutions, Versatrans or Student Transportation, powered by Traversa, and can push information and updates through parent-facing apps. Costs vary depending on the needs and size of a district.
Zonar offers several ridership tracking products. Z Pass enables tracking student riders who got on and off the bus. Riders scan a passive RFID card to the Z Pass reader inside the bus door as they board and exit. Z Pass captures the date, time, and location of each scan, then transmits it to a secure database. Authorized personnel have instant, online access. Verify is a mobile app that resides on the driver’s tablet, and adds an extra layer of student rider security and visibility. Using RFID cards, student riders scan their entry and exit from the bus, and Verify confirms from the daily routing information that it’s the right student, right bus, and right stop. Parents use the MyView mobile app to see where their child’s bus is located, create zones, and customize alerts. Districts can use the back-end dispatcher portal to communicate changes, delays, or breakdowns to parents’ phones.
Safe Fleet and Transfinder also offer rider tracking solutions.