Back-To-School 2019: School division continues to make strides in transportation

By: Michael Campbell | Twitter: @itsthesoup
Posted: September 3, 2019 | 1:45 p.m.

Superintendent praises drivers for building relationships, safety commitments

DINWIDDIE – Soon enough, the roads of Dinwiddie County will once again be dotted with yellow school buses as classes are set to resume across the county and region on September 3. Even though the buses will be more visible over the coming days as school returns to session, the work of Dinwiddie County Public Schools and its transportation department has been consistent since classes ended back in June as they, along with many other departments within DCPS, review the previous year in an effort to prepare for what’s ahead. 

Given the precious cargo that are transported Dinwiddie’s 507 square miles during a school year, the topic of transportation remains an important one for both school leaders and parents alike after concerns were raised during the 2017-2018 school year regarding safety following a number of minor accidents. During that year, the school system sent out nearly 10 press releases to local media disseminating information relating to bus incidents, with the vast majority of those incidents seeing no injuries to students or drivers. 

The number of incidents reported by the school division involving buses dropped significantly during the recently concluded 2018-2019 school year, with only a pair of school bus-related crashes being reported by Dinwiddie County Public Schools, a minor accident without injuries in October where a bus and truck collided mirrors, and a later accident in November where an SUV struck a stopped bus from behind along Boydton Plank Road, resulting in five students being taken to the hospital for evaluation. 

With the number of incidents involving school buses in the county seeming to be on the decline, Superintendent Dr. Kari Weston discussed the challenges the school division’s bus drivers face while traversing the geography of Dinwiddie County that may be different than those driving routes in more urbanized or suburban communities surrounding the area.

“We are a school division of 507 square miles and unlike some of our neighboring communities, we run a large number of buses on very small roads, sometimes roads that aren’t paved, and some of our kids are on the bus for an hour at a time both ways,” she said, continuing, “So I think there are a number of challenges that come with driving a school bus in a rural community that you don’t have in a city or smaller community.”

“We have very committed bus drivers and we are very fortunate that we are able to employ the number of drivers that we need and a lot of these [drivers] have a lot of great stories and connections to the school division,” Weston detailed. “Not unlike other places, we, unfortunately, have had our share of incidents, usually very minor. If you have a narrow road and two vehicles are going side-by-side, these kinds of things happen but we have seen improvement in that area.”

“We have been very fortunate in that we have had very few incidents of late and I would say it has a lot to do with the people we hire and their investment in this community,” she added.

According to Weston, the school division and its transportation department, led by Edward Tucker have met during the summer in an effort to roll out new initiatives to help make the drivers’ jobs easier, such as using technology to help track key data, replacing traditional paper manifests drivers were required to maintain with smart devices.

“We will be implementing a tablet on our buses that will allow everything to be automated for our bus drivers so there are no more paper manifests,” she explained. “It will allow us to watch buses in real time and provide diagnostic information with mileage and fuel.”

When asked, Weston said the drivers seem excited to utilize the new tech when the school year begins next week.

“I think it was well-received when we told them we were going to do that,” she remarked. “It is going to be very user-friendly, they just need to push buttons and things like that. I think they are open to it. I think with any change or new initiative, I think they just want to know what does it mean for me and will it make my life easier and, I think what they are finding is the prep time is going to be easier and the biggest part for them is knowing who the kids are and being able to monitor them and keep good records. It is going to reduce their paperwork, so to speak. 

The superintendent added it is the school division’s goal to be able to use this new technology in such a way that will allow parents to be able to see where their child’s bus is and when it will arrive at their bus stop through some form of a mobile app but that functionality will likely not be available during this school year.

“That is not part of the module we are doing right now because we are just starting with the drivers but our plan ultimately is parents will be able to see in real-time, where kids can sign on to the bus so we know exactly who is on the bus and, if there is an incident or if a bus breaks down, I can tell in real-time exactly who is on the bus and where they are,” Weston explained. “If parents and they’re stuck in traffic, they can look on the app, they can see ‘the bus is going to be at my child’s bus stop at this time.’ If it’s in the morning, it’s raining and dark outside and a bus is running late, we don’t have to use the phone system anymore, they can look on the app and see the bus has left, en route, and will arrive at this time, so I think it will make parents’ jobs much easier as far as transportation.”

In regards to supporting the vital school division department, as the county funded the renovation of the former Pamplin Administration Building to allow it to become the new centralized home of Dinwiddie County Public Schools, the school division budgeted funds in its budget to provide a face lift to the transportation department’s main office as a further thank you to drivers and staff for their dedication and hard work.

“We had a transportation team down there that was in a building that really has been untouched for a number of years so we went down and gave it a face lift, did some painting ourselves, got some furniture down there, created a training room for them, and put in a coffee maker, and things that are small but, we also wanted them to know that we recognize that the work they do is very essential to our success and that we value and appreciate them,” she explained. 

As the school division prepared to undergo an in-depth branding study that resulted in a new look for Dinwiddie County Public Schools, Weston highlighted the important role bus drivers play in telling the story of the school system as, in most cases, a bus driver is the first and last person a student or parent sees as a DCPS representative and, with that study completed that resulted in a new logo, slogan, and website, the information gleaned through their research about storytelling remains. 

“When you talk about who tells our story, bus drivers are one of the most important members of this school division team because that experience for young people on the bus is crucial,” she said. “If I have had a good experience on the bus, if I know my bus driver’s name and they know my name, it is about the relationship they built with those individuals. I think Mr. Tucker does a really nice job in making sure they can maintain the same routes so, If I am a Sunnyside driver, I might have a child all the way from kindergarten through 5th grade and sometimes, I even get to drive them to middle school.”

Weston continued, “It is about the relationships. Many of our drivers have been with us for a number of years. We just had a driver leave us after 50 years so we have drivers who have been with us a substantial amount of time and many of them went to Dinwiddie County Public Schools or have their own kids through the school division. For parents, the bus driver might be the only person they ever interact with for whatever reason, so they are crucial.”

“We want to make certain that we recognize, support, and value them, while also giving them what they need because they probably have one of the hardest jobs in the school division, aside from being a teacher,” the superintendent closed.

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