Across the U.S., schools are working through the latest roadblocks to recovery as they try to resume “normal” operations after two years of reinventing how to provide education. Many students are back in class, but getting them to and from campus is an ongoing challenge.
The most forward-looking schools are incorporating analytics and real-time data to help manage operations while responding to daily complications from the pandemic—creating a truly connected educational environment. When we look forward, school districts need to be able to make data-driven transportation decisions so they can serve their communities with agility and build the foundation for more intelligent cities down the road.
Today’s school bus carriers operate the largest mass transportation fleet in the country. 480,000 yellow school buses travel the nation’s roads, and the school bus fleet is 2.5 times the size of all other forms of mass transportation combined, according to the National Association for Pupil Transportation.
With this scale, we have a unique opportunity to transform student transportation using Internet of Things (IoT) technology and real-time data. By using sensors and artificial intelligence to better analyze the needs of school districts, bus operators can get a more accurate handle on the number of vehicles, drivers, stops, students, routing updates, and COVID restrictions they face daily.
We also need to think about how we can use technology tools to not only recover today but build for the future. Right now, we’re at an inflection point—schools have an opportunity to focus on technology investments that can make the promise of connected schools and, ultimately, smart cities a reality.
Many schools are already embracing data-centric systems to keep students safe throughout pandemic recovery. For example, some have utilized in-vehicle camera and GPS systems, combined with sophisticated routing software to create “what if” scenarios as conditions changed this past year. This helped East Allen County Schools in Indiana balance the three factors—a limited driver pool, changing attendance patterns, and requirements to spread students out to one per row.
“This school year, agility and accountability were especially important as we prepared to reopen in the face of COVID-19,” said Roger Miller, transportation manager at East Allen County Schools. “With COVID-related driver absences, this system gives us faster re-routes, resulting in better performance for students and parents.”
Today, most schools are holding classes in person, but districts are struggling to find drivers. When the country first went into lock-down, some drivers retired early and others took more lucrative jobs delivering essential packages or food. This shortage is so significant that some states, like New York, have contacted hundreds of thousands of professional drivers with commercial driving licenses directly to try and entice them to drive for the schools.
When new drivers join the school bus force, technology can help trainee drivers adapt to the safety requirements of transporting students. New mobile and tablet-based programs can automate everything from logging a morning vehicle inspection to providing dynamic routing to ensuring drivers check for sleeping children at the end of the route.
Footage from AI dash cameras can provide insights into driving patterns and behavior, which can then be used to train and coach drivers on safer driving habits. These cameras can also provide video evidence to support a driver’s perspective if an accident happens.
This was exactly the case for Baker County Schools in northern Florida.
“Keeping our buses connected with IoT sensors and dash cameras have become an integral part of ensuring student safety,” explained Pamela Taylor, director of transportation at Baker County Schools. “Now, we have increased visibility into behavior on the road—such as harsh braking or rolling stop signs—and we’re able to coach drivers more effectively as a result.
“With the current shortage of drivers top of mind, this has been an important tool to support both existing and new employees in this role.”
From the parent’s perspective, after a year of constant adjustments, stops and starts, and an ongoing low-level fear of the coronavirus, parents can’t rely on traditional, static bus schedules and routes—conditions are just changing too fast.
Today, real-time data systems that support operations and training can also give parents an update as the bus approaches, so they can meet their children at the stop. “Parent portals” from providers like Edulog can integrate with GPS systems and tag on/off readers on the buses so that parents know where their child is, can ensure if they made it to school, and quickly find out if they got on the wrong bus or off at the wrong stop.
Some schools are even upgrading their existing legacy cameras throughout the yard, halls, etc., with newer IoT systems, so they can centralize video management and provide more value. Take St. Joseph’s Academy in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. They’re using cloud-connected cameras to achieve remote visibility and, in turn, better protect their students.
“By enhancing our on-campus cameras with more intelligent systems that leverage artificial intelligence and real-time alerts for unusual activity, we have a more robust and comprehensive approach to student safety,” said Greg Hanner, co-director of technology for St. Joseph’s Academy. “If our students are safe, that has a ripple effect on the safety of our broader community as well.”
This past year, administrators and institutions focused on immediate needs to try to educate students the best they can. But we can’t miss this opportunity to invest in technologies that will ultimately support the function of smart cities down the road. According to the UN, 68% of the world’s population is projected to live in urban areas by 2050. Building smarter, more connected cities will be critical to ensure that citizen services can adapt and scale alongside the technological advancements of society.
Connected schools can provide the foundation and infrastructure to make this happen. Adding more intelligence to the half million buses crossing the U.S. every day can inform public works departments, update traffic patterns, and enhance real-time awareness for cities and counties.
When you look back at this pandemic era, we’re going to see changes and adjustments that persist for years—but that doesn’t have to be bad. The most innovative schools are turning these challenges into opportunities to modernize and make their operations more efficient and resilient. But let’s go further. With connected technologies, we can better understand our cities, make smarter decisions, and build a more connected world—one yellow school bus at a time.
About the Author:
Jordan Gilbertson is the Product Manager for Public Sector at Samsara