Stopping the spread of COVID-19 starts on the school bus.

By Brad Bishop, Product Director, Bus Guardian, CalAmp

As schools reopen and COVID-19 continues to challenge the nation, peace of mind is difficult to achieve. School administrators are losing sleep over how to keep students and staff safe. Teachers are poring over virus mitigation plans. Parents are agonizing over their decision to send their kids back to school. 

The fact is, while in-person school is the ideal learning environment for students, it presents a risk. Schools can’t go back to business as usual. It’s a tough adjustment, but measures such as learning pods, outdoor classes, and regular sanitization may help prevent transmission of COVID-19. 

Maintaining proper hygiene and social distancing in classrooms and cafeterias is one hurdle, but for many students, the risk of COVID-19 transmission begins even before they arrive at school — that is, when they board the school bus. 

The school bus environment presents unique challenges. Students file on. They touch the same surfaces. They sit in close proximity, breathing the same air. And rides can often be longer than 20 minutes in an enclosed space. 

School districts are instituting rules, such as opening windows, limiting riders, assigning seats, and requiring masks, to make the ride safer. Nevertheless, there is a possibility that someone who’s infected with the virus — whether they know it or not — will pass it on to someone else. 

While children who develop COVID-19 are less likely to become seriously ill than adults, recent research suggests they carry a higher viral load, which could mean they’re more contagious. 

Understandably, parents are worried. In CalAmp’s Back to School survey, just 43% of parents said they plan to send their kids to school on a bus, compared to an average 50% ridership last year. 

 

 

Contact tracing: a pillar of prevention

Identify, isolate, inform. That’s the formula for containing an infection. 

Parents must be on the lookout for COVID-19 symptoms in their kids. Administrators can do their part by educating parents on the importance of symptom monitoring. When someone receives a positive test result, they must immediately self-quarantine. 

The next critical step is notifying anyone who’s had contact with the person. According to the CDC, contact tracing is key to stopping the spread of COVID-19. 

Unfortunately, while many states have scrambled to hire and train contact tracers, local health departments’ contact tracing capacity is lagging behind new cases. Some cities have all but given up on contact tracing. School districts have an opportunity to invest in the technology to protect students and their families, bus drivers and other school staff. By doing so, they can limit transmission within the school and into the wider community. 

Compared to other, more controversial mitigation strategies, contact tracing is popular with parents. According to a back-to-school survey from CalAmp, a global telematics technology provider, more than a third of parents disagree with classroom mask mandates, but more than 90% would want to know if students, teachers or staff have contracted COVID-19. Only 28% said school bus contact tracing would not make them feel more comfortable.

Contact tracing on the school bus

CalAmp’s contact tracing solution, Bus Guardian, starts at the bus stop. More than 1,000 of school districts across the country already use CalAmp’s location-based technology to manage their bus fleets. The company developed Bus Guardian in response to the pandemic. 

A school bus equipped with Bus Guardian’s contact tracing technology operates much like an airplane. Students and drivers scan on and off the bus using their ID or smartphone. GPS-enabled hardware on the bus connects to remotely accessible software. If someone on the bus tests positive for COVID-19, it’s easy to quickly generate a report of who was on the bus at the same time, which means the school can begin alerting all potential contacts immediately.

Bus Guardian’s technology shows not only which students rode the bus at the same time but also who rode the same bus within a certain timeframe. This is critical information. If a bus drops off high schoolers at 2 p.m. and elementary schoolers at 4 p.m., and one high schooler tests positive for COVID-19, everyone who rode the bus is a potential contact. 

The report doesn’t just track students. Due to a driver shortage, there are more substitute drivers behind the wheel. Bus Guardian tracks drivers, whether they’re full-time employees or not. 

Contact tracing is crucial, but it’s not enough. Sanitizing surfaces is another key weapon in the fight against COVID-19. Bus Guardian software provides time-stamped hygiene verification for every ride. Administrators can monitor and report on sanitization efforts in real-time. 

These features protect students and staff on the bus and off it. With contact tracing, a positive case at school – and on a bus – doesn’t have to turn into a full-blown outbreak at school. 

Assuring parents, preventing outbreaks

In-person learning is important to both parents and students. It narrows academic gaps and allows parents and caregivers to work outside the home and earn a living. A school also provides important services such as meal programs and counseling in addition to important socialization. And buses are how 25 million students get there. 

School bus contact tracing is one way to send students to school more safely this fall. There aren’t a lot of easy wins in this pandemic. But contact tracing is CDC-recommended, parent-approved and simple to implement. 

Administrators are working day and night to ease parents’ fears and keep students and staff safe. School bus contact tracing can help them do both.