How small-vehicle transportation can solve Georgia’s school transportation crisis
Written by Trish Donahue
Georgia, like many other states, is facing a student transportation crisis, with districts unable to find enough school bus drivers to get kids back to school.
In one example of this crisis, the Savannah-Chatham County Public School System recently reported it needs an additional 60–80 drivers to run regular routes, with only four new drivers scheduled to complete training.
This transportation crisis is paradoxically happening at a time when districts have access to an influx of COVID relief dollars: The federal Department of Education is encouraging use of this funding for critical services like transportation, and even explicitly recognized the use of these funds on non-school bus transportation options like HopSkipDrive.
So why are kids still not getting to school?
The answer lies in the regulations.
Georgia has historically only legally permitted transportation by yellow school bus. These laws have been on the books for decades, dating back to a time where most kids took the bus to school.
That’s not, however, the case today.
In light of school choice, a variety of extracurriculars, and the individualized needs of certain students, an increasingly smaller portion of students ride the bus. Based on a 2017 Bellwether study, only about 33% of kids take the bus to school. The vast majority are riding in personal vehicles.
Small-vehicle transportation is key to solving the crisis
The Georgia legislature made strides this past session in modernizing its transportation regulations by passing SB 159, which opens the door to transportation by small vehicle for students with disabilities and youth experiencing homelessness. Now, the Georgia Department of Education must create rules specific to small vehicle transportation.
In most cases, small vehicle transportation is the most effective way to serve students with disabilities and youth experiencing homelessness in particular. The needs of these students are highly individualized, aren’t effectively accommodated on a bus route, and many of these students benefit from the more controlled environment offered by sedan-type transportation.
The need for this transportation is critical for student groups such as students with disabilities and those experiencing homelessness; these groups also experienced the most learning loss during the pandemic so this transportation is particularly crucial at this time.
In addition, small vehicle transportation will reduce the need for buses in the more customized transportation scenarios common to transportation for students with disabilities and youth experiencing homelessness. This helps to make a significant dent in the bus driver shortage because it means that bus drivers can be used for more fully utilized buses and not on these one-off routes.
What will be critically important is that these regulations are designed in a way that ensures accountability for safety, but doesn’t impose the overly burdensome requirements that landed us in the bus driver shortage we’re experiencing today.
Take the requirement in the proposed regulations that each vehicle have a sign marking it for “Student Transport.” This fails to recognize that services like HopSkipDrive are required to have HopSkipDrive decals clearly identifying each and every affiliated vehicle; that through the application we provide the CareDriver’s name, photo, bio, and vehicle information in advance of each ride; and that we have instituted a multi-factor authentication process at pick-up. These simple systems are effective and come at no additional cost to school district partners.
Or the proposed requirement that all small vehicle drivers complete annual training administered through the Georgia Department of Education. Since these regulations are designed for the common sedan and SUV-type vehicles, what’s more effective are initial and ongoing motor vehicle history searches, and live ride monitoring and telematics capabilities which can detect, in real time, erratic driving behavior. These systems are built into every HopSkipDrive ride and don’t come with nearly as much of a cost or operational hurdle to get drivers approved to drive.
The fact is that a majority of student transportation is already happening in personal vehicles owned by students’ families (upwards of 54% per the Bellwether report). The difference is that transportation in these vehicles, like the ones used by HopSkipDrive CareDrivers, lack the safety features that HopSkipDrive provides.
It’s time for our transportation regulations to catch up
The bus driver shortage isn’t going away. Increasing numbers of students are more efficiently accommodated by a sedan than a large bus. And the only way to ensure greater access to opportunity for kids is to design systems that allow that to happen. If we impose bus-driver-type requirements on small vehicle operators, we should expect the same shortage of drivers we see today.
There are more effective ways to ensure transportation. Our grandparents who passed these laws in the 1960s likely never predicted live ride monitoring capabilities using technology. Or technology that would detect in real time if someone is speeding or using their phone while driving.
In order to meet the Georgia Governor’s stated priorities in his ARP ESSER Plan – accelerating learning, personalized supports, promoting opportunity – Georgia school districts and families need flexibility in contracting with safe, small vehicle transportation solutions for kids.
These regulations need to recognize the modern ways of ensuring safety in student transportation. It’s what’s best for school districts, and it’s what’s best for Georgia families.