According to a report from USA Today, US K-12 schools entered the 2021-2022 school year with 55,000 fewer bus drivers than the previous two years as Covid-19 exacerbated a bus driver shortage that predated the public health crisis. To alleviate transportation-related woes, some districts have adopted mobile apps designed to manage long parent pickup lines and to notify parents of transit updates and dismissal procedures, among other functions.
With schools seeking solutions for these logistical challenges, and parents taking to car lines instead of using district transit services, apps such as PikMyKid have experienced significant growth in recent months, according to PikMyKid founder and CEO Saravana Pat Bhava.
Bhava said his app, launched six years ago, has grown to a million active users across 2,000 schools in all 50 states as more parents opt to pick up their children to avoid crowded buses and transit delays.
For school districts that contract with PikMyKid and implement its system with their programs, the app works with a geofence surrounding the school. When parents enter the perimeter and activate the app on their smartphones, teachers can see in real time who is in line, in what order. Teachers then let students go in turn, sending notifications to each parent that their child has been dismissed.
"There's (now) fewer bus drivers available, so routes are being cut short. The fewer school buses available, the more kids are being crammed into school buses... It adds more pressure to the car line and the walkers, and it creates more problems for school staff to ensure accountability," Bhava said, noting that the app has seen "tremendous user base growth primarily because schools need better tools to manage the dismissal process."
With the growth of the app, he said, the company recently set out to expand its IT staff for tech support. When asked about negative reviews relating to app glitches or functionality, he said recent growth led to an increased need for troubleshooting.
"When the user base grows, there's a lot of traffic," he said. "People tend to fall off — we see that a lot in ed-tech especially," he said.
Maria Edvalson, a co-founder of an app called PickUp Patrol, said there were very few options in terms of K-12 school dismissal apps on the market when her company launched theirs nearly a decade ago. Now, schools have a variety of apps, including QManager, School Dismissal Manager and others, to choose from in both small rural districts and large urban ones.
"Our application increases office efficiency and student safety with a convenient parent app for submitting dismissal changes and a comprehensive dashboard for tracking them. Then, at the end of the day, schools use our student dispatcher to keep the car line and bus loading moving along quickly and accurately by directly alerting the student's teacher when it's time for each student to leave," she said, adding that "dismissal communication is a universal issue" across districts today.
Edvalson noted that dismissal apps like hers are designed primarily to automate some of the responsibilities of school secretaries and other school staff whose workloads have increased during the shortage, as parents increasingly turn to schools for important transit updates.
"We have workers not willing to risk exposure. We have drivers required to be vaccinated that won't, so they are unable to continue in their positions," she said of the problems compounding the bus driver shortage. "Remote school last year sent drivers to seek new jobs outside of the school system or to retire early, and now with many companies raising their hourly rates and a large pool of available jobs in the bus driver salary range, people are choosing less stressful work environments over driving."
In addition to apps for managing pickup lines, schools are also using platforms to update parents on bus route changes and delays resulting from a need for longer routes due to driver shortages.
According to WINK News, parents in Florida's Collier County and Lee County school districts still relying on bus fleets have come to expect delays due to the shortage, leading them to a "Where's the Bus" app to find out estimated times of arrival to and from school. Meanwhile, schools continue trying to attract drivers so as not to create longer bus routes and crowded buses, which the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention says have increased the risk of Covid-19 exposure.
"We have been able to cover all routes by utilising current staff and former substitute drivers. However, we need additional drivers and are continuously recruiting and training," Collier County Schools spokesperson Maribel De Armas said in an email to Government Technology.
The National School Transportation Association's executive director Curt Macysyn said K-12 transit isn't "immune to the employment market conditions" that are plaguing several other job sectors also struggling to attract applicants, adding that many drivers left the K-12 transit workforce due to health concerns.
Depending upon the state, he said, the process of attracting, training and qualifying drivers can take anywhere from six to 12 weeks.
"Creating more efficiencies and flexibility in pickup and drop-off times are always helpful, especially in this environment," he said, adding pay rates are among many other factors creating transit-related burdens in schools today.
"Routing tools are helpful because they can determine the most efficient and safe routes for bus drivers to utilise," he said. "Everyone must be mindful that students are picked up where they live, and that routes are always fluid because districts cannot predetermine where students live. That changes every year." – Government Technology/Tribune News Service