What School Start Will Look Like in 2020

by Tim Ammon and Tom Platt on May 7, 2020

Our prediction: This year will look a lot more like last year than may seem possible right now.

There has already been much ink spilled over what the start of school will look like for transportation service providers in August and September 2020. The challenging economic and fiscal environment coupled with continued uncertainty about the public health implications of COVID-19 are certain to change the way schools function and transportation providers operate. Right?

No, it won’t. At least not fundamentally.

It is our belief that most school districts are going to open with transportation systems that look and function much like they did in September 2019. There will certainly be modifications, like alternative day or split day schedules, but transportation systems will still at their core be about transporting as many students as possible with the fewest resources possible.

Does this mean the changes will be no big deal?

No, it doesn’t.

We believe there will be school systems not opening in the fall.

We also believe there will be systems that try to open as if nothing has happened.

In our view, however, either of these possibilities will look be a substantial departure from the norm. We believe most school districts will be in a middle ground, making a host of modifications to their typical schedule but still largely operating as before.

The challenge we face is in making adaptive changes in an uncertain operational environment.

How can our prediction be proven in an environment that has so frequently been called “unprecedented”? In our view, there are three elements that greatly narrow the scope of possible systemic change:

  • K-12 education generally, and transportation services specifically, remain grounded on the idea of economies of scale. By bringing lots of students to a single location to be educated we can best leverage the limited population of educators and the materials they use.

  • The amount time available to develop radically different alternatives to this model are not available before fall sessions are scheduled to begin. The development of a requirements set, or the projection of possible costs for viable alternatives cannot be accurately or even reasonably completed in the approximately 100 days until schools begin opening again in earnest. 

  • The need for schools to be open for the economy to begin its recovery will be such an imperative that in many areas it will appear that there is no choice but to open. Given that most work schedules are based on traditional school day schedules, it is unlikely that many policy makers will want to venture too far from “normal” in their approach to school opening.

As a result, it is almost impossible for us to imagine a structure that is radically different from that which we have operated under before. There will still be substantial change, however, and we must be prepared to adapt. Determining what changes and planning for them will require flexibility, responsiveness, and resilience. Regardless of where you and your district will land along the continuum of possibilities for school opening, we believe you must be highly focused on managing the risk profile of each possibility to ensure the safety of students and staff, and to ensure that services can be delivered in an era of highly constrained budgets.

Our recent work has been focused on identifying and assessing the risks that school districts and transportation organizations will face. Much of the industry has been focused on the issue of social distancing on buses and bus stops. While this is an important concern, it is not the only concern you will face, and in our opinion isn’t even in the top 5.

Much more effort needs to be devoted to thinking about how policy makers understand and manage the tradeoffs, because there will be tradeoffs, between safety and the availability of transportation services. Regardless of whether there are 12 students or 72 students on the bus, we believe there are broader systemic concerns that educational policy makers and the public in general need to gain clarity on in the next 100 days if we don’t want our transportation services, or our schools in general, to present a false reality within our communities.