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Schools hope to have GPS bus-finding app functional by January

The Liberty County School System is putting in place a pilot program where parents can use GPS to track their child’s school bus.

Chief Operating Officer Arnold Jackson told school board members Tuesday that transportation director Tracee Hill is embarking on a pilot program that should start in the next two weeks. School principals have been asked for volunteers to take part.

The developer of the app is working on updates and verifying the program works, Jackson said, along with getting feedback from parents. The system will make sure everything works before it taking it district-wide, Jackson added.

“The goal is to have it ready in January,” he said, “but we hope we can have it sooner.”

Board members said they are getting calls from parents who are not getting calls about buses running late. Jackson said the current system is a one-call system and once the app is finished with its testing and released to the public, parents can set up how they receive notifications, such as 10 minutes out, 30 minutes out and if the bus is leaving the school.

“The new system is going to be bigger and better,” school board Chair Verdell Jones said.

School system officials also encouraged parents to call the customer service line and if they cannot get in touch with someone to leave a voicemail.

“Every single one of those calls we get into customer support, we are going in and fixing by hand,” said Dr. John Ryan, the system executive director of technology and media. If you call into that line and let us fix it, we will fix it for you. If you get voicemail, please leave a voicemail. I know people want to talk to humans. But we will get back to them and we will identify those issues and we will get them fixed.”

Ryan added parents who have opted out of notifications may not realize that they have opted out of all notifications when they meant to drop one or two of them. About one-third of those parents who weren’t getting calls had said they no longer wanted communications from the school system, Ryan noted.

“We’ve been a little more proactive about that,” he said. This year, if you said you didn’t want to get text messages or did not sign up, we call and say you are not signed up. If you want to receive text messages, we send a five-digit code. If they turn it off completely, we cannot contact you through those methods of communication.”

The system is still struggling with a bus driver shortage. There are 74 bus drivers in the system currently, leaving the schools about 30 drivers short. School districts across the country have bus drivers shortages, system officials previously noted.

Some Liberty County school bus drivers are running two or three routes daily.

“Until we get additional drivers, we are going to run a little late,” Jackson said. “We have some great drivers and they are working hard and I really appreciate what they do for our system and our students.”

The on-time rate for students is at 85%, Jackson said, which is up from 75% from the same time last year.

“We have some improvements,” he said. “We are getting more of our kids to school on time than last year. We are always trying to get better. We are still trying to recruit bus drivers.”

Jones implored the system to recruit more bus drivers in new ways.

“We’ve got to aggressively recruit,” she said. “One driver reached out to me and I’ll come back and work part-time. I recruit wherever I go. We need to think outside the box in how we recruit. We need to be a little more creative in how we recruit.”

Jones pointed out the school system’s benefits package also could be a draw for boosting its drivers roster and suggested the school system pay for background checks.

“We have to think about these kinds of things if we want to get people into our system,” she said.

Jones also praised the current drivers for their efforts.

“We can’t thank them enough,” she said. “They’re doing a great job but we don’t want to overtax them.”

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