Tina O'Farrell, a trip adviser for School District U-46 in Elgin, Ill., manages transportation activities with Tyler Technologies' TripTracker software.  -  Source: Marcy Murphy, School District U-46

Tina O'Farrell, a trip adviser for School District U-46 in Elgin, Ill., manages transportation activities with Tyler Technologies' TripTracker software.

Source: Marcy Murphy, School District U-46

Spring is a busy season for school district transportation officials as teachers plan end-of-the-year field trips and athletic departments experience a wave of weather-related postponements.

Until recently, planning and scheduling for these school district field trips and special events often required putting pen to paper. But that’s changed with the advent of GPS-supported technology.

“With all the new events and sports schedule changes, spring gets pretty time-consuming for us,” said Marcy Murphy, who is in her 33rd year in the school transportation industry, but just her second as director of transportation for Elgin School District U-46. The district is the second largest school district in Illinois, behind only Chicago, but the state’s largest with its own transportation department.

Murphy and her team operate a fleet of 350 vehicles and transport 23,000 students from 11 communities encompassing 90 square miles. Each year, U-46 books travel for 3,500 sporting events and over 1,000 field trips.

When it comes to planning, the 2023-24 school year has been much different for U-46 because it has a new travel-planning app, TripTracker created by Tyler Technologies, which Murphy said has made scheduling and fulfilling field trips and special events much easier and efficient.

“It’s been a big change from last year to this year, “ said Murphy. “We’ve centralized the intake of information for the trips. We aren’t getting an influx of emails or a field trip request through interoffice mail at the last minute anymore.”

Murphy said teachers and school athletic departments now enter trips into a shared Google Sheet. Then, through TripTracker, teachers get a confirmation email that their trip is booked telling them they are ready to finish the planning for their destination. Those requesting special transportation did experience a culture change, Murphy admits, but it was a short period before people got used to the new system. 

School Bus Technology Evolves

Companies such as Tyler Technologies and Safe Fleet are revolutionizing how students are transported by offering software that provides turn-by-turn onboard navigation systems, apps for parents to follow their child from pickup to drop off, and live video monitoring of what’s happening on the bus.

“Technology is real-time access to information with a goal of increased efficiency and safety,” said Chris Akiyama, Safe Fleet vice president, school bus. “And that includes where the bus is and which students are on the bus. It's become critical today through our use of cellphones. We expect information to be at our fingertips, whether that be school administrators, a parent, or a student.” 

And the hurdles school district transportation departments experience are increasing along with expectations.

“School districts are facing the challenges of last-minute changes, space on the buses, driver shortages and keeping track of driver seniority and acceptance of trips. Our software helps address all of that,” said Crystal Duchane, sales manager of installed accounts for Tyler Technologies.

Tyler Technologies’ Student Transportation Software powered by its Traversa Routing and Planning system offers flexible and comprehensive student transportation software. For districts with more complex needs, Tyler Technologies also provides Advanced Activity Trips to provide fully integrated tools to manage trips beyond what is included in its core program.

Duchane added that Tyler Technologies’s GPS Tracking and Tablets help increase safety and efficiency, from student tracking to turn-by-turn driver directions as well as engine diagnostics with real-time data.

“There are a lot of restrictions that go into picking up kiddos on the bus, from students to only being picked up on a certain side of the bus, to avoiding busy intersections,” Duchane said. “And a lot of other things are factored in with each route that is built into each map. If a driver misses a stop, Tyler Drive is going to navigate you to the safest way, not the fastest way. And any driver on any bus can use the tablet and download any route to their tablet and get turn-by-turn navigation. That’s useful for drivers unfamiliar with a route.”

Duchane said audio directions activate when the bus is in motion, and when the bus comes to a stop the tablet activates and the driver can see what students they are supposed to pick up or drop off at that stop, that’s also good for field trips. It also communicates with the parent app so parents can follow the path of the bus and know when their child is going to get on or off the bus. This increases accountability and safety so parents and the district know where the child is at all times, too, she said.

Connected School Buses

Safe Fleet calls its technology program the “Connected Bus,” providing wireless connectivity to manage any onboard situation in real-time, providing connectivity using a smart router/antenna, GPS tracking, a driver tablet, onboard cameras and DVRs and student ridership radio frequency (RFID) cards.

Its field trip technology addresses, among other things, verified pre- and post-trip inspections; field trip management software that manages trip requests, bus and driver assignments, permit printing, billing and payroll; route optimization to plan and deliver up-to-the-minute route changes; driver, bus and student assignments; and onboard video with live streaming to monitor what’s happening inside the bus at any moment, enhancing student safety and behavior management.

“The No. 1 product school districts are wanting today is student tracking and student accountability, and that’s across the board whether on a field trip or on a regular route,” said Kerry Somerville, Safe Fleet senior product manager, fleet management. “And you can’t discount the complicated planning and authorization process that goes into managing several field trips, especially for a larger district.

“Our routing software serves some of the largest school districts in the country,” Somerville continued. “They have to go through the planning process and make sure they have the buses available and there is money in the budget for the field trip and even after the trip is taken, in most instances, there is a bill back or a bus has to be chartered, and it has to be determine who gets billed for that.”

Safe Fleet’s offerings for field trips and special events go beyond technology, said Lori Jetha, vice president of marketing.

“Some school districts have purpose-built buses for band or sports that safely carry students and their equipment,” Jetha said. “We even make the luggage racks for those purposes.”

U-46 Looking Ahead

After improving its field trip operation, Marcy Murphy said Elgin U-46 is looking to consider the next level of service for transporting students, including electronic pre-trip planning, turn-by-turn tablets and scanning students on and off buses.

“The goal is to bring us forward to see how to package and combo routes so we can be as efficient as possible,” Murphy said. “Safety is No. 1 followed by efficiency and providing on-time transportation for all of our students.”