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Transportation Trailblazers video series kicks off with Back to School in a Time of COVID-19

It’s back to school time, and what transportation to and from school, learning pods or distance learning looks like for children, families, and schools across the country changes weekly.

Back to school transportation this year is looking much different than anyone expected at the start of the year. School starts, transportation, learning pods, and distance learning continue to evolve as schools reopen and leaders work to adopt and implement strategies for safe school openings. 

To help keep up with the ever-changing information in transportation, highlight transportation trends, share what’s working and what’s going to change, HopSkipDrive has introduced Transportation Trailblazers; a new series of information-rich videos that will have viewers generating new ideas and finding solutions to their transportation problems.

Our first Transportation Trailblazer video, Back to School in a Time of COVID-19, features a conversation between Alex Robinson, former President of the National Association of Pupil Transportation (NAPT) and Toby McGraw, HopSkipDrive Senior Vice President of Sales.

Throughout the conversation, Alex and Toby discuss  back to school staffing concerns, trends in special education transportation and the HopSkipDrive COVID-Safe Ride Standards.

“I think it’s important to remember that we had some challenges before there was a pandemic. Certainly a lot of those issues haven’t changed. We need to rely on a lot of experts, be cautiously optimistic, [know] that information is changing daily, and we have to be patient with each other.” 

– Alex Robinson, former NAPT President

With 30 years of experience in student transportation, Robinson oversaw school bus service for the nation’s largest school district, the New York City Department of Education, was the Transportation Director at San Diego Unified School District, and served as NAPT President. Robinson brings a wealth of knowledge to the conversation. 

Stay tuned as we continue to share new Transportation Trailblazer videos in the coming months.

 


Video Transcript

This transcript has been edited for clarity.

Toby:

Hello everyone. Thank you for joining HopSkipDrive’s Transportation Trailblazers video series. My name’s Toby McGraw, I’ll be facilitating today’s conversation. I lead the sales and revenue team here at HopSkipDrive and I’m pleased to introduce you to our special guest. She’s the past president of the NAPT, former executive director of the Office of People Transportation at the New York City Department of Education. Her career as a transportation expert, special educator and behavioral specialist has spanned 29 years. Please welcome Alex Robinson. Alex, how are you today?

Alex:

Hi. I’m good, Toby. How are you?

Toby:

I’m doing very well. Before we get started, why don’t you give us a little bit more about your background?

Alex:

Well, I came into transportation from a little bit of a different background than most people, because I started in the classroom and worked with students with disabilities, students with severe autism. So while–for the safety of the motoring public I do not drive a school bus–I do bring a classroom-based, instructional side to student transportation. 

Toby:

Perfect. I know that myself personally–and that many of us in the industry–we’ve certainly looked up to you and learned so much from you over the years. We go back probably a dozen years or so, and it’s great to have had you share your knowledge with us. I think it’s something that you’ve always done really well. You’ve done your best to share your knowledge with the rest of us. So, we really, really appreciate that and we look forward to some valuable insights today.

So, today Alex and I are going to be discussing back to school transportation in the time of COVID and making the right decisions. So, obviously back-to-school this year is looking a little bit different than what we might’ve expected at the start of 2020, and we want to help address some difficult questions and offer some direction and perspective to help our community navigate these challenging times ahead. Is there anything else you’d want to add to the topic before we get started, Alex?

Alex:

Information is changing very rapidly, so we have to be patient with each other, because the information that we give out may change tomorrow. So, we just have to give everybody a little bit of a break.

Toby:

Yeah. That’s absolutely right. That’s a great point. A couple things we wanted to talk through. Is there going to be a concern around staffing issues for our bus drivers or for our contractors? From your perspective, what should transportation directors expect when they return to finally an in-person instruction scenario?

Alex:

I think it’s important to remember that we had some challenges before there was a pandemic, so certainly a lot of those issues haven’t changed. We still have a driver shortage. We had a shortage before all this started. As I said earlier, we have a lot of unanswered questions, and I think we need to rely on a lot of experts. I don’t necessarily claim to be an expert, but there’s a lot of good information out there. We have to be cautiously optimistic that the information is changing daily. We have to be patient with each other. We have to know that there already were some challenges before this all started.

Toby:

Yeah, certainly. I think most of us are well aware of what we’ve seen in terms of driver shortages, and certainly with a population of drivers that tends to be a little bit older and sometimes classified as high-risk. I know some directors that we’ve talked to are concerned about some of these older drivers coming back in a safe and effective manner. So, I know that’s top of mind.

I’m kind of curious to dig a little bit deeper. One of the things that is coupled with this pandemic has been the socioeconomic conditions certainly not improving for a lot of students out there. So thinking back to the Great Recession almost 10 or 12 years ago, did we see higher numbers of students classified as experiencing homelessness or in the foster care system? Do you see any increased need for supporting those types of populations?

Alex:

Well, I was worried for a minute, I thought you were going to say The Great Depression and I’m not that much older than you, so I’m glad you said recession. Yes, obviously, there was already an issue with more people experiencing some financial hardships with the economy. Not all of the places around the country are as fortunate as some of the large urban school districts that are able to pay their drivers at a fairly high wage. First and foremost, the population of drivers may also be at risk. Besides that, there are also parents and grandparents who’ve had to care for kids and answer questions in this uncertain time. This is all coupled with the uncertainty of housing and everything else.

I know just in the large areas where I’ve lived, whether it be in San Diego or New York City, you’re talking about 35% of the student population that might be homeless, and 70% of the population that may be living at poverty level. So that, coupled with uncertainty about food and transportation and education, I think certainly those are the stresses that kids are bringing with them, whether or not they have a disability. Just that at-risk situation, it’s certainly stressful.

Toby:

Certainly. Let’s dive a little bit deeper into special education specifically. Those of us that know you know you’ve always had a passion for supporting those students with unique special needs. When you look at the landscape across the country, what are some of the trends that you’re seeing with regards to special education transportation?

Alex:

Well, first, just with special education, I think there’s a lot of skill sets that we’re losing. A lot of parents are stressed and frustrated and not teachers themselves. So if they do have a child with a disability, coupled with either educating another one of their children online, plus the added resources needed to educate students with disabilities, that’s going to be a challenge.

I think we’re going to see, if we haven’t already, students who’ve lost a lot of those skill sets. There’s also concern regarding who’s going to be taking care of a child once they go back onto a vehicle? Is it going to be appropriate for or even possible for them to be separated on a bus or in another alternative vehicle? Is that going to make a difference? How separated are they? Then who’s going to provide that one-on-one assistance?

All of those things are still questions. I don’t know that they’re necessarily trends yet, because the students haven’t gone back to school in many cases. But there have to be some alternatives looked at. I think we need to start to think out of the box.

Toby:

Certainly. When you think more broadly about the special education landscape, do you see that there’s been more sensitivity to students with unique sensory issues, whether it’s sound or touch or different things like that? As opposed to in the past, I think a lot of students might have been classified as having behavioral issues. It’s because we didn’t understand really, truly what might trigger an individual student. Have you seen that lead to an increase in students where they have an IEP that calls for individual transport outside of a standard large school bus?

Alex:

It may not be individual transport, but they could certainly have alternative transport. We all know that students’ needs need to be looked at individually, thus the word IEP. It’s an individualized educational plan, and I think it’s challenging. It’s always been challenging for our educational system to deal with that, because of all the different individual needs. So, I think that’s a challenge. I think we’ve seen a lot of just: what kind of equipment are they using?

Again, going back to that communication. If the only way a student communicates is with eye signals, if one of the parties, whether it be them or their caretaker or their assistant is wearing a mask, that’s certainly going to present some challenges. Then of course, all of the other health issues and risk issues that come with our students who are medically fragile, who we were already transporting, but now not only are our drivers and attendants at risk, but now that population of students is even more at risk, too. 

Even if there’s only going to be eight students in a classroom or less, I think for some students, having that social interaction and educational on-site learning still may be the best option. How we get them there is going to be the challenge. How effective is that shortened day, et cetera?

Toby:

It certainly feels like there’s a heightened need for improved collaboration and communication between all parties involved, from the special education department, the transportation group, whether it’s their drivers or their subcontracted drivers, along with the parent and student. So just thinking about how, especially for large districts, how do you make that process consistent? How do you make sure that the various partners you may leverage, even your in-house drivers, are making sure that this is a consistent process for that student and for those parents? 

Alex:

I think communication is key. There’s no reason why the exact same information you give to parents is not given to drivers, attendants. Whether they’re your own district employees or private contractors, subcontractors, they all need to have the exact same information, over-communicate. As transparent as possible, if you don’t know the answer, I think it’s perfectly okay to say to a parent or to say to a contractor, bus company or a driver, “I don’t know, but I’m going to work on finding the answer. Then that answer will be our answer for today and maybe the rest of the week, and then maybe that answer’s going to change a week from now, but let’s go with that now.”

It’s really kind of a toolbox. We’ve always spoken about that toolbox on working with kids with disabilities and you have to have trial and error going on all the time, so this is just another example of that. I think, again, making sure that you’re communicating, regardless of who you’re communicating with. I think sometimes we tend to say, “Well, that’s confidential or that’s for a school district employee, not for a contractor.”

You should have the exact same communication with everybody and you should bring them in to focus on what are we missing? You’re a parent, what do you think you need to know and what can we do to help? You’re a contractor, what is it we can do to help you? I think if our audience, so to speak, our customers or passengers know that we don’t have all the answers, then maybe they’ll feel a little bit more comfortable in the learning process with us.

Toby:

Certainly. I think that there’s been a true enablement from technology providers in the industry over the last decade or more. There’s more information available at the dispatcher routers’ fingertips, at the parents’ fingertips to be able to identify things like, where’s the vehicle at? When’s it going to arrive? Are there special pickup instructions? Whether it’s driver A or driver B, they’re able to see and understand all these unique things about this rider, the pickup, the school, or anything else.

I really think, both at HopSkipDrive, as well as my past, being able to see how technology can help enable and improve that communication flow has made a meaningful difference for a lot of operations. Would you agree with that?

Alex:

Oh, absolutely. Not using that technology is silly at this point, because even some countries around the world that are much smaller than ours and much farther behind in terms of technology have been using this technology for years. I think anything, like you said, whether it be through HopSkipDrive or any of the other companies that are doing any sort of GPS, AVL, student tracking, use of video technology, scanning of smart cards, anything. The fact that all of that information that we’re gathering, especially now, we might have to also think about some medical information and who’s sharing that and everything, but I think it gives parents and guardians peace of mind to certainly know where their kids are.

Toby:

Absolutely, absolutely. So pivoting a bit specific to some of the things that we’re seeing around COVID-19, it’s obviously put a whole new layer of safety and cleanliness protocols into just about everything we do in every part of our life, whether it’s student transportation or going to a grocery store or anything else in our life.

So I’m kind of curious, with regards to COVID-safe transportation, what are specific things that transportation directors should be asking their providers? Oftentimes, they’re the same things that they’re asking their own bus drivers or asking their company to do, but are there things that you would recommend they ask their subcontractors?

Alex:

I think they need to make sure their contractors or their drivers themselves or their technicians are working directly with the manufacturers. Manufacturers are going to have the best advice as to how to clean and sanitize their specific equipment. We’ve seen guidance from CDC, World Health Organization. We’ve seen guidance from many of our hospitals and our local counties in terms of sanitizing, disinfecting… But we have to keep in mind that this guidance might be for the vehicle in general. Then if some of those chemicals touch some of the equipment itself, whether it be a student’s particular safety equipment or a vest or a car seat or whatever, that may not be the most recommended method for cleaning.

 We have to weigh all the options. It’s really not a one-stop shop for everything, we have to make sure that we have resource guides available and we know where to look. Like I said earlier, the information is changing daily, so we have to … I hate to say we can’t be definitive about it and say, “This is the way it is no matter what,” but we really do have to get used to saying, “This is how it is today. Here are the questions you need to ask, especially about children’s allergies, children’s fears.”

There’s oftentime a fear of even having anything touch a child. They have a tactile issue, their senses are such that they don’t want something right up against them. I think we need to be aware of all those things, I think we need to be aware of the other senses that students have, the colors, the senses, the smell, what products are we using. But also, I think we need to know where to look and meet with our other experts and network with our other school districts and contractors. All of our associations have worked very well together to come up with some guidance. Many of our manufacturers have joined together to pool their resources too, and I think we need to take advantage of that.

Toby:

That’s absolutely right. One of the things that we saw early on in the process was that there were just so many different ideas or plans of things that we wanted to do, or what each individual school or district wanted to do. We happen to operate in about 13 or more markets across the country, and as we’re looking at what the requirements might be at the state level, we thought it was really important to have a standard minimum safety features for all drivers on the platform across the country.

There were things that in some cases might be above and beyond some of the local requirements, things like PPE, having a plexiglass barrier between the driver and the passengers. Things like sanitation checks as part of the workflow for a driver to actually verify and confirm that they’ve sanitized the vehicle, verify and confirm daily health screenings to ensure that they haven’t had fever, to ensure that they haven’t been around other folks that have tested positive for COVID-19 or had other symptoms, right? So we really felt that just from a scale perspective, making sure we have these minimum requirements across the board were super important.

What’s been interesting as we’ve taken these steps, there’s always been these questions from our buyers like, “Hey, what are you doing for COVID?” They’re like, “What are you doing?” Just the fact that we had a plan I think set ourselves apart in many ways, because we’ve thought about it, we’ve consulted with public health officials, along with the other industry folks that you mentioned, and here were the minimum standards that we’ve seen. So for us as a business, it’s been well-received, and it’s something that I think we’ve tried to position ourselves as a leader there, while also learning and being able to adapt to the changes that we see on a day-to-day basis.

Alex:

Having those health protocols and safety protocols in our industry is something that we should have. I think it’s a great reminder for drivers why we have protocols. Whether they’re drivers of a school bus, or a paratransit or an alternative vehicle, that’s why there’s a pre-trip inspection, that’s why there’s a post-trip inspection and that’s why there’s OSHA standards.

There’s COVID-19 right now, but there’s also the common cold. There’s a lot of other germs and things, especially when you’re talking about students who may have more body fluids just naturally, because of their age or because of their disability, or because of many other issues. So this is something that especially attendants have been working with for a long time, but I think we get so relaxed about it. But I think that’s great, and having a plan puts you all a step ahead.

Toby:

Yeah, absolutely. One of the interesting things that you called out there is traditionally when we’ve thought about safety, we didn’t always think about public health as it related to safety, right? So even with HopSkipDrive’s Safety Advisory Board, we had people from the Department of Education, we had people that were transportation directors, we had people from the National Safety Council, Safe Kids Worldwide, all these safety related organizations. We decided we have to add someone from public health, because this is naturally part of the way that we should be thinking about safety, really in this holistic manner. From our perspective, it’s not only for the passengers, but certainly for the drivers as well.

Alex:

It makes a lot of sense.

Toby:

A big thank you to Alex Robinson for joining us on HopSkipDrive’s Transportation Trailblazers video series. Thank you for all the time, the great information and insight. We certainly touched on a bunch of topics from staffing to transportation roadblocks, and doing our best to maneuver through the COVID-19 pandemic while keeping our staff and students safe. So, hope that everyone enjoyed the video and found value in some of the key takeaways from our time with Alex. Before we sign off, Alex, is there anything else you would like to add?

Alex:

I think just remember that this is ever-changing, so there’s not a lot of wrong answers, I don’t think. I think there’s a lot of experts, there’s a lot of people who we can gain information from, so we need to communicate with each other too.

Toby:

Fantastic. Well, great. Thank you so much for your time, Alex. We’ll go ahead and wrap this up. We look forward to seeing you on the next installment of HopSkipDrive’s Transportation Trailblazers.

Alex:

Great, thanks so much.

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