SOUTH CAROLINA SCHOOL BUS COMPANY RESUMES ATHLETIC TRIPS

A Columbia, S.C.-based school bus contractor that had been sidelined by the COVID-19 pandemic resumed service last week, conducting its first athletic event trip in several months.

Integrity Student Transportation Services, which provides field trip and athletic trip service to private and charter schools, had all its trips canceled because of school closings prompted by the pandemic, and Karim Johnson, the contractor’s general manager, said at the time that his operation’s future was “up in the air.”

However, the contractor recently got one of its buses back on the road, transporting 21 students and two coaches to a swim meet on Aug. 15, 2020.

In response to the pandemic, Integrity Student Transportation has intensified its sanitizing practices, complying with the South Carolina Department of Education and the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control.

Staff members now clean and disinfect the buses twice per day after morning and afternoon routes, using a handheld chemical sprayer (Integrity has ordered electrostatic sprayers, which are currently on backorder) and EPA-approved disinfectant. Several times a day, they also wipe down with disinfectant frequently touched surfaces such as handrails, and those touched by the driver.

Overall, the trip went well, Johnson added, with all passengers complying with safety protocols of social distancing on the bus and wearing face coverings.

Having 13 more school athletic trips on the books as of now, with plans to transport about 334 students, as well as South Carolina seeing a gradual decrease in new COVID-19 cases recently, Johnson said he is cautiously optimistic about moving forward with business during the pandemic.

NHTSA PERMITS INSTALLATION OF SCHOOL BUS BARRIERS TO SEPARATE DRIVERS, STUDENTS

BUS DRIVER

In an ongoing attempt to mitigate the exposure of COVID-19 on the school bus and protect school bus drivers and students, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) permitted the installation of both plexiglass barriers and clear plastic soft shields under certain conditions.

Despite previous prohibitions in some states, these barriers can be used as long as they meet certain window glazing requirements and comply with applicable federal motor vehicle safety standards.  Plastic soft shields would be installed to the right of and behind the driver, and/or installed throughout the passenger compartments by attachment to the interior roof and to the seatback of passenger seats.

NHTSA stated that it considers plexiglass barriers installed in school buses as “interior partitions.”

Depending on where the partition is placed, NHTSA wrote that it may be considered a “requisite for driving visibility” and subjected to height requirements. Requisite for driving visibility for school buses includes windows to the immediate right or left of the driver and the front windshield. Any portion of glazing that the driver would have to see through to look out windows would also be considered requisite for driving visibility. The part of the barrier behind the driver area is not requisite for driving visibility and instead has additional compliance options for items allowed to be used.  NHTSA said it considers soft shields as “flexible curtains.” 

“Visibility is particularly important for school buses, as not only are school buses engaged in the transportation of children, they also make frequent stops,” NHTSA stated. “Installers should ensure that installation of a partition or curtain, particularly one situated in an area requisite for driving visibility, does not create glare or otherwise reduce the driver’s ability to see embarking and disembarking students and other road users.”

PERMITTING HAND SANITIZER ON SCHOOL BUSES REMAINS A LOCAL DECISION

Hand sanitizer is likely something most people probably have been carrying with them since the start of the pandemic, if not sooner. But related products are prohibited on all New York state school buses, for example. Yet other states nationwide have provided exceptions and allowed its use, going as far as authorizing dispensers on board.

Springdale Public Schools, located north of Fayetteville, Arkansas, installed hand sanitizer dispensers on all 174 school buses in an attempt to improve hand hygiene. Trisha Labit, the district’s school bus safety coordinator, said her department made sure to get permission from the Arkansas State Department of Education before installing.

She added that the staff chose a nonalcoholic substance, to be sure it wasn’t flammable and installed the dispensers near the front stairs. The district went with the brand Germ-X Fresh. When buying in bulk, the district receives dispensers free of charge.  Labit said not only are the dispensers located throughout the entire fleet but the entire transportation facility as well. The school buses are also equipped with spray bottles that school bus drivers will use in between routes, prior to the next group of students boarding.

Meanwhile, other states like New York remain opposed to onboard hand sanitizer. Reopening school guidance released on July 16 states that “School buses shall not be equipped with hand sanitizer due to its combustible composition and potential liability to the carrier or district. School bus drivers, monitors and attendants must not carry personal bottles of hand sanitizer with them on school buses.”

Randolph Jerreld, transportation director at Rotterdam-Mohonasen Central Schools, located near the state capital of Albany, said his district is communicating with parents to be sure student’s hands are clean before they enter the school bus. Staff will also be encouraging students to use the hand sanitizing stations inside the school buildings once arriving to school.

Morgan Paris is the market development manager for GOJO Industries, the inventor and makers of Purell. She said the company is currently working with school districts to understand their needs on school buses. GOJO is currently providing four main products to school districts to help promote a safer transportation environment. Two of the main products are bottles of hand sanitizers and dispensers.

TRANSPORTATION STILL A CONCERN FOR MANY

SYSTEMS ON BUSES

Although the number of school districts opting to begin the new school year with online learning only continues to rise as COVID-19 numbers increase nationwide, pupil transporters ponder issues including driver health concerns, student mask monitoring, and extra costs.

Two California school districts which also happen to be among the largest in the U.S. — Los Angeles Unified School District (USD) and San Diego Unified School District (USD) — announced on July 13 that they would begin the new school year online only.  Most school districts in the state would start the new school year with online learning and no in-person instructions,

Since then, large districts in Georgia, Texas, Virginia, and Maryland, have joined them.  Atlanta Public Schools plans to open the 2020-21 school year with “a full virtual learning model,” according to a news release from the district on August 24, and  Cobb County (Ga.) School District will do the same on Aug. 17.

Meanwhile, two districts in Virginia — Fairfax County Public Schools and Loudoun County Public Schools — and Maryland’s Montgomery County Public Schools reversed plans to kick off the 2020-21 school year with a combination of remote and in-person learning and announced a switch to online only, 

Despite changing plans brought about by the resurgence of COVID-19 in many areas of the U.S., pupil transporters still grapple with issues that loom when students will eventually need transportation to school, such as driver health concerns, student mask monitoring, extensive new cleaning procedures, and extra costs.  Many drivers are older and have underlying health issues which may prevent them from feeling safe returning to work.

Making sure students wear masks is another concern for bus drivers. Drivers are unable to devote the time to enforce students wearing masks aboard the bus, and more staff members may be needed to monitor students and help with bus sanitation.

Districts across the country already had a shortage of drivers – this could only make things worse.

NHTSA PROPOSES STUDIES

We haven’t discussed stop arms and motorists since the Covid-19 virus took over our world.  Here is an update from The National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA).

The NHTSA has proposed a collection of information for two studies — one on motorists’ knowledge of laws that prohibit passing stopped school buses and another on stop-arm camera effectiveness.  

The first study would be based on an online survey designed to collect information from motorists across the U.S. to assess their knowledge of and attitudes towards laws regarding the passing of stopped school buses, as well as their opinions on the safest driver behaviors when encountering a school bus on the roadway,

The second study would be a field study conducted in two communities with different levels of camera enforcement laws against passing stopped school buses. The goal of the study would be to examine the effectiveness of an automated school bus camera enforcement system combined with high-visibility police enforcement and public education in reducing school bus passing violations.

The findings from this proposed collection of information will assist NHTSA in designing, targeting, and implementing programs intended to mitigate illegal passing of school buses on the roadways and to provide data to states, localities, and law enforcement agencies that will aid in their efforts to reduce crashes and injuries due to illegal school bus passing.

WEBINAR TO DETAIL RETURN-TO-SCHOOL TASK FORCE REPORT

The Student Transportation Aligned for Return To School (STARTS) Task Force is holding a webinar on Friday to share information to help pupil transporters assess health and safety guidelines related to COVID-19 issued by federal, state, and local health officials.

Comprised of three major pupil transportation organizations — the National Association for Pupil Transportation (NAPT), the National Association of State Directors of Pupil Transportation Services (NASDPTS), and the National School Transportation Association (NSTA), the task force launched in May with the goal of offering practical information to help student transportation providers during the COVID-19 pandemic as they prepare for when schools reopen.

The webinar will detail how information compiled by the task force is supplemented by resources created to enable school transportation professionals to accelerate their individual planning efforts in support of their local school reopening plans, according to an announcement that NASDPTS sent to members last week.The webinar will take place at 1 p.m. Eastern Time on July 17.

3 TIPS FOR OPTIMAL TIRE MAINTENANCE

With tires presenting a significant expense for school districts, it is important to have solid maintenance practices in place to get as much use out of them as possible.

Phil Mosier, the manager of commercial tire development for Cooper Tire, points to several factors that contribute to tire wear-and-tear.

“Every school district will be different as to how hard they are on their bus tires — the type of roads, obstacles encountered, weather conditions, and how the driver operates the bus, all come into play to determine a tire’s life,” he said.

Here are 3 rules Mosier has listed to follow to properly take care of your school bus tires. 

1. MAINTAIN PROPER INFLATION.

The number-one tip for longer tire life, hands-down, is maintaining proper inflation.  The appropriate inflation figure should be determined by a scale weight by axle and then using a load/inflation table. For example, typically on a Blue Bird school bus, inflation levels for an 11R22.5 Load Range G are set at 105 psi. However, bus owners should plan to do their own inflation figure calculations for each bus model as the details vary.

It is also important to note that mismatched inflation pressure on dual assemblies is a substantial contributor to faster tire wear.

 

2. THOROUGH VISUAL INSPECTIONS ARE CRUCIAL.

The second tip addresses the need for visual inspections.  Begin by looking at the sidewall facing out.

 “It’s not uncommon to find some scuff or scrub marks, typically on the right-side tires due to right-hand turning where curbs are present, but what you’re really looking for is cracks, bulges or bubbles, and cuts,” he says.

 Next, inspect the crown or tread area.  Look for any road hazards such as nails, screws, or metal or missing sections of tread.  Make sure the cords are not showing

3. ROTATE TIRES REGULARLY.

The third tip for optimal tire maintenance is to conduct regular tire rotations. Regular rotations can help get more miles out of every tire, putting off replacement.

“You really have to stay on top of rotations, especially in the positions where irregular tread wear can occur,” he says.

Following these tips will not only optimize tire life but will also position the tire casings to be in good shape for retreading, which can help contain maintenance costs.

SCHOOL BUS TRACKING APP AND COVID-19-RELATED TRIPS

In California, technology solutions provider CalAmp and subsidiary Synovia Solutions have introduced a new feature to school bus tracking app Here Comes the Bus to help schools manage routes and trips necessitated by COVID-19.

The new functionality allows district transportation officials to create designated stops in the tracking app without routing software, enabling users to track any bus route. It also allows smaller districts that do not use routing software to deploy the Here Comes the Bus app.

Here Comes The Bus is currently being used by several school districts across the U.S. in pilot programs to track and alert parents about these new bus routes spurred by the pandemic-related school closings, which include meal and homework pickup and delivery.  Stanly County School District in North Carolina has deployed Here Comes the Bus to deliver meals to students during the mandated school closures resulting from COVID-19.

 “We listened to our customers and developed an innovative solution specific to their needs,” said Jeff Clark, senior vice president of product management at CalAmp. “This new enhancement builds on the legacy of dependability and intuitiveness that’s been the hallmark of our success and now enables us to expand the app to serve smaller school districts.”

More than 300 districts across North America use Here Comes the Bus to deliver real-time school bus arrival and departure notifications to parents via mobile push and email notifications, according to CalAmp. The school bus tracking app is deployed by more than 2 million registered users today in major metropolitan school districts such as Minneapolis; Sacramento, Calif.; Charlotte, N.C.; and Orlando, Fla.; as well as scores of smaller districts.

DECISIONS ON SCHOOL BUS TRANSPORTATION

 “We are in unprecedented times.” Nobody can deny that all aspects of our lives — the way we eat, the way we travel, the choices we make when meeting with people outside of a digital setting — have been affected.  However, there are some opinions that come out of times like these that should be considered.  

One of these opinions is a blog recently published at stnonline.com titled, “Time to Rethink the Use of Mass Transit in Student Transportation?”  New recommended guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are pressuring our transportation systems to think differently by limiting the number of students per bus and even going as far in many cases as to suggest one student per seat, every other row. It is a tough situation we are facing.

Transit buses are not built to the same rigorous safety standards that school buses are.  This fact, and this alone, should make anyone pause at the suggestion that parents should use any other mode of transporting students.  The manufacturers that make up this industry have invested millions of dollars in research, engineering, crash testing, emissions certification, and so on to provide the very safest means of transporting children to and from school. In fact, the American School Bus Council reports that school buses are 50 times safer than any other method of transporting children.

There is a reason that school buses are built the way they are. There is a reason that parents and students trust a school bus over other methods of transportation. By utilizing a method of transportation that was not built for this application, we are risking the health and safety of our students in a major way. We understand the temptation to consider other options, but not ones that compromise what we have all worked so hard to achieve — and for what likely would at best be a short-term solution.

Listen to the experts.  Listen to the groups comprised of transportation directors and those who have been involved in this industry for years.  We all want to get back to normal, but we require decisions that protect safety rather than expediency when it comes to our students. Let’s continue to work towards getting back to normal in the safest, most effective way possible.

VIRTUAL ‘STORY TIME’

Dean Transportation in Lansing, Michigan, has partnered with a local independent bookstore to produce a virtual story series in an effort to help give students consistency and connection during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Dean Transportation Storytime Series premiered on Dean Transportation’s Facebook page on May 20. Bus drivers from around the state read popular children’s books, provided by Schuler Books, to students. The school bus company will post new videos on Mondays and Wednesdays for the remainder of the summer.

“COVID-19 has uprooted the schedules and daily lives of children across the state, which can cause a lot of confusion and stress for kids,” said Dean Transportation President and CEO Kellie Dean. “We created the Dean Transportation StoryTime series to give students some consistency and positivity through weekly facetime with their favorite bus drivers.” 

“This story time partnership allows us to put our passions for reading and community involvement into practice,” said Samantha Hendricks, events coordinator for Schuler Books. “The pandemic has been an overwhelmingly difficult time for families everywhere, and we’re proud to partner with Dean Transportation to promote normalcy and healing through books for children throughout the state.”

School bus drivers continue doing all they can to make this trying time easier for their students!