K–12 schools saw drops in enrollment this school year, as students switched to permanently virtual options. Some districts made plans to offer fully virtual learning to students and families who opted to continue learning remotely. This shift in enrollment, combined with students quarantining for extended periods and a shortage of bus drivers, has left some districts struggling to maintain transportation efficiency.
Technologies to improve bus efficiencies exist, but other than putting Wi-Fi hotspots on school buses last year, schools have largely not made updates to their transportation technology.
“Despite student transportation being the largest mass transit system in the U.S., the industry — and any associated processes and procedures — hasn’t changed in more than 80 years,” says Ritu Narayan, co-founder and CEO of transportation company Zum. “Technology on pretty much any level is only now getting fully incorporated.”
Now that K–12 districts have ESSER funding to spend, they can put this federal money toward integrating technology into school buses. Additionally, thousands of electric school buses heading to schools as part of the Bipartisan Infrastructure Deal, which includes $5 billion for low- and zero-emissions buses.
For improved efficiency, IT leaders should work with the school’s transportation department to consider Wi-Fi for all buses in their fleet, radio-frequency ID technology and GPS tracking of routes and students.
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Wi-Fi Makes Long Student Commutes More Comfortable
Students — especially those in rural areas — face unusually long commutes. Average commute times for students taking the school bus vary by state and can range from 24 minutes in North Carolina to 47 in Arkansas, and can be even longer in more rural areas.
On top of these long commute times, families are experiencing additional delays as a result of the bus driver shortage.
While there’s no easy solution for a shortage of drivers, adding Wi-Fi to school buses can give students more time to complete homework and other assignments. “The bus ride itself becomes another learning environment,” says Akilah Willery, education strategist for CDW•G. “The kids could be studying, watching YouTube, or doing things on their phone, but they would be a lot more comfortable with a Wi-Fi connection.”
Because hotspots are connectivity solution, administrators can use ESSER or Emergency Connectivity Fund resources to upgrade their bus fleets with Wi-Fi.
RELATED: Navigate government funding for K–12 schools to optimize network health.
RFID Technology Shows Where Students Are Boarding the Bus
Radio-frequency ID is another option for K–12 transportation teams. RFID tags could help parents and schools ensure that students are taking the bus and that they get on and off at the correct stop. This information can help schools plan more efficient routes, in addition to giving parents peace of mind about their child’s safety.
The technology is easy to implement with ESSER funds, as it requires only a tablet or mobile device on each bus and an RFID tag for each rider.
GPS Tracking Helps Drivers Determine the Best Route
GPS tracking is another way to use funds to improve school bus efficiency in K–12 districts. In the U.S., most transportation systems have tracking capabilities. For public transportation systems, such as buses and metros, riders can easily find tracking apps and receive notifications. Ride-sharing companies such as Uber and Lyft show exactly where their drivers are located. Even pizza delivery can be tracked with fair reliability.
Now, schools are beginning to implement similar technology for student transportation. In a survey by Premier Wireless, 70 percent of respondents had GPS on their school bus fleet, but only 23 percent had student tracking. This tracking data can also help make bus routes more efficient as schools determine where students need to be picked up for in-person classes and where others don’t need transportation, because they are taking classes online.
Many tracking applications can also help drivers determine the best route based not only on which students are attending school, but also on outside factors such as road closures, weather alerts or traffic delays.
“For drivers, the app, accessed via in-vehicle tablets, provides real-time route updates, personalized information on every student’s needs and easy-to-use incident reporting capabilities,” Narayan says. “No special hardware is needed.”
Because many of the available tracking applications for schools can be installed on a tablet or mobile device, ESSER funds can be used to improve the efficiency of bus routes by helping cover the cost of these devices.