The Right Decision: Stay on Track with DSG

July Newsletter 2020

The past six months have introduced an extraordinary amount of change and uncertainty. The next six will be no different. You will need an operational strategy that mitigates risks and maximizes service flexibility. The starkness of the contrast between these requirements will be a substantial challenge to overcome.

Creating the organizational discipline to assess three critical questions will increase the likelihood of success given the school opening model you will be expected to support. Those questions are:

  • What are the things you absolutely need to know?
  • What are the things you would like to know?
  • How will you communicate to people what you are doing?

Our newsletter this quarter addresses each of these items and we hope provides a jumping off point for continued thinking about how to make critical decisions in the months ahead.

The Things You Need to Know

DSG was honored to be one of the co-managers of the Student Transportation Aligned for Return to School (STARTS) Task Force. The Task Force was formed to provide information and ideas for how school bus operations can best respond to school opening guidelines provided by state and local health officials and policy makers. The report offers information, tools, and resources that will accelerate the planning efforts of school districts in partnership with the transportation departments and bus contractors.

Definite guidance and definitive recommendations from the STARTS Task Force on critical questions such as physical distancing and the use of face coverings on buses were not feasible given the scope of the effort and highly localized impact of the pandemic.  There is no good answer to fixing this other than being clear about what you need to know when determining how many buses and drivers you need plus when and where you will need them. The things you need to determine are:

  • When will the school day start and end for each location?
  • What days of the week will each student be attending school?
  • Under what conditions will students be allowed to ride the bus?

With these three things and the resources available to you in the STARTS report you can bring your skills to bear on developing the routing alternatives that will meet the needs of your district. It will not be easy, it will not be fast, and it is highly likely to be temporary regardless of what you come up with. There is no option but to plunge headlong into the planning process using all the resources and tools available to you.

You may note that we did not include the question of how many students can be seated on the bus. We believe this is the wrong question to ask even if it offers the simplest answer. What we all must recognize is that there is no “right” number of students, but rather there is an appropriate set of conditions that will mitigate the spread of the virus. We believe that your efforts should be focused on deciding what the conditions are that will allow maximum feasible use of vehicle capacity while mitigating the risk of contracting and transmitting the virus.

The Things You Would Like to Know

Managing uncertainty requires us to be humble about what we really know and what we do not. Of particular concern should be items that you are certain to be uncertain about, such as who will actually ride the bus and who will drive them.  Our focus for now is on the riders because the number of riders helps determine the number of drivers you need.

Many school districts have proposed a registration process for transportation to better align their ability to plan with the seats that will be available once the conditions for ridership have been determined. There are two choices here: require eligible riders to opt-in or allow them to opt-out.

Our thought is that understanding a little about human behavior would force a recognition that an opt-in process is a far superior way to proceed.  How many people do you know who work to opt-out of a benefit to themselves? We believe that requiring an opt-in process will result in a more accurate reflection on who will actually use the system rather than those who may be hedging their bets.

We know that laws and regulations in each state will have a substantial impact on whether this is a workable approach for your district but doing so will greatly reduce the uncertainty associated with ridership…at least for a while. The combination of an opt-in process with a clear definition of the conditions required for bus ridership will greatly improve your district’s ability to maximize the ability of transportation to support the school reopening process.

Communicating What You Are Doing

Telling is not communicating. We tell people where their stops are and what time they should be there. We also tell drivers what their routes are and when they need to be at work. Unfortunately, all this telling isn’t really communicating at all, and our COVID response will require us to do much more communicating. This means we need to rethink our approach to informing people of how we are working to mitigate the possibility of virus contraction and transmission.

Communicating is a process and not an event. The process needs to have a purpose, a beginning, a method, and an end. Having a strategy that explains why and how your services will be impacted by the changes coming for this year should be your focus. The following summary will help you begin putting your strategy together.

  • Define who it is you want to communicate with and why – Are you speaking to the Superintendent? The School Board? The public? All of them likely need to know different things, so be sure to define what you believe they need to know.
  • Identify the information and data do you have or need to have to make your case – You should be able to explicitly describe and quantify how what you are doing will be a benefit to your audience or will mitigate a risk. In this you should continue to be clear about the things you don’t yet know.
  • Set a schedule for when you will communicate – People normally have to hear a message more than once before they can fully process or understand it. Assume you need to deliver a message more than once and define how you will push your message out.
  • Define what you need from those you’re communicating with – Explicitly define what you are you trying to achieve. This might be acceptance of an idea by the audience, information retrieval where they are giving you more information, or approval of your proposed approach.
  • Ask yourself how you will know if your communication is effective – The purpose of communication is to actually increase the awareness and knowledge of all parties. The question you need to answer for yourself is how to know if this was achieved. This will be more than just someone approving of your idea. It should also include whether you have educated your audience in a way that builds long-term understanding and partnership. Once you know your audience has understood your message it is time to move on to the next message.

This year will be a different experience for everyone. A structured and disciplined approach to decision-making and communicating will be a key success factor in managing the challenges we all face. We are certainly here to help if you need assistance, guidance, or just someone to hear you out. Stay safe, and all the best for you and your team as you head toward the start of school.