It’s 7:56 a.m. My kids have gotten dressed, eaten their breakfast, fed their fish, and packed their bookbags. They’re watching YouTube, flipping back and forth on the Roku between my son’s preferred videos and my daughter’s. They still need to brush their teeth—two minutes—and get their shoes on—one minute—and the bus stop is a little less than a quarter mile away—about four minutes walking time (more if you’re my daughter and you stop to pick some wildflowers). This puts them at the bus stop at 8:03, precisely 120 seconds before their bus comes at 8:05.

“Let’s go, guys,” I say, toothbrush hanging out of my own mouth. “TV off; brush your teeth.”

“Dad,” my son complains, pausing a YouTube video showing Titanic wreckage. “There’s a minute-forty seconds left.”

He’s got it down to a science.

As everyone talks of the “Uber-ification” of K-12 transportation—that today’s parents expect their school bus to “have an app for that” and, ideally, that app should respond to their individual child’s needs, whenever they change—what’s often left out of the conversation is one very important part of taking the bus to school: consistency. Especially for Special Needs or younger students, consistency equals safety—students with time-sensitive medications, or who need the same AM/PM driver, or for simply providing predictability to busy working parents.

While incredibly convenient, ridesharing apps like Via, Lyft and Uber are, by nature, reactive. They are a one-way request from Point A to Point B. They contain tens of thousands of current GPS locations, so when you enter your destination, the app’s algorithms find the closest, most probable driver. If that driver denies, it goes to the next until a driver accepts. Then driver and rider info is swapped, including the ability to communicate, and you’re usually on your way in a few minutes.

This isn’t exactly how school bus routing works. In fact, it’s wildly different for a few fundamental reasons:

  1. Rideshare apps do NOT have the safety rules your child needs – Uber doesn’t care about right-side pickup or how far a kindergartner can walk versus a 10th grader. Your bus routing software should, and the parent app should reflect these nuances.
  2. Rideshare apps are NOT based on route efficiencies – If you laid out Uber’s daily “routes” on a map, it would look like spaghetti. Outside of finding the nearest driver, Uber doesn’t consider optimization. And that’s fine. It doesn’t have to be efficient in that way; it’s not fiscally accountable to the public. However, you don’t have the luxury of dispatching any bus to any address at any time.
  3. Rideshare apps are simply A to B – School bus routing is A to B to C and then down to V to grab the student who takes medication in the morning, and then E, F, and G for the AM Kindergarten kids. D’s not riding today. Oh, but Johnny’s riding to grandma’s house this week, and Tim the driver called out, so add W, X, Y, and Z!
  4. Rideshare apps do NOT consider what time you need to arrive – Uber isn’t working back from your flight time, for example, to calculate when you need to be out on the curb for a ride to the airport. Instead, it’s reacting to what you tell it, and then working forward. You get there when you get there. That’s not exactly how it works for school bell times.
  5. Rideshare apps are NOT dedicated to your child – If there don’t happen to be any Uber drivers nearby when you request a ride, oh well. Throw on some YouTube and wait. But school transportation doesn’t have such luxuries. If you’ve ever tried to set up a pre-scheduled Uber ride, and the driver got there 15 minutes early, you understand clearly why the rideshare algorithms aren’t apples-to-apples with routing for school bell times. How many parents would be okay with the school bus having a 30-minute window for their morning pickup time?

All that said, the fact remains that parents have an Uber-level expectation, so we need to ask why. What components of those apps do parents want to see mimicked for the school bus? Probably, they’ll tell you they want to know when the bus is late, what time it will arrive, and when a different bus is coming. They want transparency.

The good news is there are K-12 apps that do this—plus a lot more. Without sacrificing the safety, consistency, or efficiency standards your community depends on, they provide proactive communication. How they do that is important, so here are some key features that your next K-12 parent app should contain:

  1. Estimated Time of Arrival – The best parent apps base the ETA not simply off a radius around the parent’s house, but a real-time update based on the planned path and stop order.
  2. Current Bus Location – Not every district wants to share this info with parents, so it should be a configurable setting. If you do use it, your parent app should limit parents to only their child’s bus, and only as it relates to a buffer time before and after their stop.
  3. Notifications – In addition to automatic ETAs, you should be able to send parents custom push notifications, relevant to them. You should be able to filter by school, bus number, run name, or even an individual student, to make sure that notifications only go to the people who need them.
  4. Substitutions – This is perhaps the single biggest challenge when it comes to sharing information with parents. With a two-tier system, even if one bus or one driver is substituted, that’s four runs and roughly 200 students who may need to be notified. It’s more phone calls than you have time to make, so your routing solution should give you the ability to quickly account for substitutions with a web-based dispatching tool that automatically carries down to the parent app. That way, parents are looking at the ETA for the bus that’s actually on its way, not simply the scheduled bus that may be in the shop today for maintenance.

If you’re interested in parent apps for your operation, hear about all the amazing benefits from existing users in this webinar. Also, in a couple months, the NAPT conference includes NextPloratory Sessions about adapting to new technology that everyone should try to attend. You can register for NAPT here.

Without sacrificing safety, consistency, or transparency, K-12 parent apps like Traversa Ride 360 and Versatrans My Stop can provide accurate information without you losing the important controls around what you share. The key word in all of that being “accurate.” The last thing you want is a parent app that creates more phone calls.

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