The Searcy School District will be making sure that children are getting on the right buses by launching a program for the 2022-23 school year that it tested out during the last school year.
“Obviously, this [schoolchildren] is the most precious cargo that we would ever carry so anything that we can do to protect them is money well spent,” Assistant Superintendent Dean Stanley said about the Smart Tag program, which has cost the district $58,546.23 in Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief funds for safety and contract tracing purposes.
Transportation Director David Dale said Smart Tag is a “student ridership program where every kid will have an ID tag to ride the bus. It has a lanyard and you put it on your right side of your strap on your backpack and that way when you walk up on the bus, there’s an RFID [Radio Frequency Identification] Reader – they don’t have to actually touch it, they can just hover over it – and it will tell them ‘right bus, wrong bus.’”
Dale began his first year ever in education when he started working for the district in August 2020, and he said there were times when drivers were running behind each other trying to get kids home at the end of the day. So he has been looking for a program that would help with such situations. Enter the Smart Tag program.
“I kind of chose Smart Tag,” Dale said. “It was more ridership focused and less routing focused because I didn’t really need anything complex for routing for 30 routes, and it was the first ‘on-board tablet’ in the nation. It was actually started by a bus driver out of Texas [in 2014] ... and there are updates all the time. He is very open to if we see something that will help [Smart Tag].”
All of the Searcy bus drivers will have a Samsung tablet to use. “They have a little cradle for them right by the door of the bus,” Dale said. “They clip it in and it charges while they are driving.”
During the test launch, Dale said, “when the kids actually had the card out to scan, it was quick.”
In addition to making sure students get on the right bus, another safety aspect is making sure the kids are getting off at the right stop.
Smart Tag “will be a definite safety mechanism for us,” Stanley said. “Any district that I have been involved with, we’ve always had kids that have ended up on a wrong bus or got on a bus with a friend and the driver didn’t really know if they were supposed to be there or not, so this will prevent anything like this from happening.
“We have had a lot of situations in the past where a parent would call and say so-and-so didn’t come home, can you find out where they’re at? So we are in a panic mode to see where the last place they were and sometimes it would take an hour or two before we actually figured it out. Fortunately in every case, they were safe. This right here will prevent that up front.”
At any given point, Dale said he will have to hop on routes and this program will help him know who gets on and who gets off a particular bus. “If one fell asleep and they scanned on, you know they are there so you are not going to miss their stop.”
“This is huge,” Dale said. “Drivers are loving it. We will automatically get a report on who didn’t have a tag and we can further investigate and get them a tag.”
Bus driver Tallie Reynolds, who has been driving for Searcy schools for one year, explained how the tablet works with the program. “It has a light because sometimes we will come out in the morning and it will be dark, so we can do our pre-trip with that. It comes up with my route [on the screen] so then I can confirm it. It goes off the actual time, [and] it locks into GPS.
“We go in and we check the air brakes. Your next area covers the inside of the bus. Say you are walking through and you see some graffiti on the bus, you can report it and you say the seat where it is. This goes directly to our mechanics when I’m done. Then you go to the front of the bus, you do your check there. If there is any defects, it lines it all up and it goes right to the mechanics. You do all the sides [of the bus]. It is making sure you do all of your pre-trip correctly so when it comes up, everything is good. When you do your first round, you have all of your lights and everything on and so if I have a light out, honestly you can’t go out [on the road].”
After she showed how to report something such as graffiti, Reynolds said the next thing she would do would be to start the bus and go into the tablet and put in her starting mileage reading and her gas level. There is a diesel gas pump at the transportation department at the high school campus. Now, the tablet indicates that Reynolds is starting her route and the message pops up “Please Drive Safely.”
The Smart Tag tablet will tell her and the other drivers where to go and the names of the kids they will be picking up. When she gets to the school site, it will tell the drivers who all had gotten on the bus.
“We still have the child safety check when you turn the bus on,” Reynolds said. “It’s a device that’s in the bus and every time you turn on the bus and you turn on your reds, which are the stop, it has a device in the back so when we stop we have to go back and push a button to make sure we walk the whole entire bus and to make sure there are no children sleeping, hurt or anything on the bus.
“It is just a child protective thing. If there is a group of kids and one of them got on and didn’t scan and he’s the one sleeping in the back, you still got to go check and make sure that he’s back there.”
If for some reason one of the kids does not have a Smart Tag, the driver can tap on the kid’s name and it will manually load the kid in. “If they forget their tag, it’s OK; we still get them on the bus, we still take them to school, but if it’s excessive then we have to let the parents know. It’s part of their uniform.”
She said eventually the system will have the exact seat number each child will take on the bus. Students scan their tag when they go to get off the bus too.
Dale said some kids are shy and might not say their names or remember their address so this program will help. Once all the bus times are ready for the new school year, he said the district will push out the “Parent Portal where they can get automatic alerts when the bus is within 15 minutes of their stop.”
Reynolds looks at the Smart Tag as a way for the kids to build up responsibility in their lives. “Think about it, it’s giving them a responsibility. You’re going to have a driver’s license someday. You’re going to have some responsibility so it’s teaching them about it, so it’s actually long term and we get it down in elementary school and it just goes all the way up to the top.”
Stanley said McRae Elementary School is using the Smart Tag program in the cafeteria, scanning for breakfast and lunch, so the tags will serve a “dual purpose.” Stanley, who was superintendent for the White County Central School District, said it used a similar program for lunch but it was not coordinated with the buses.
Dale said he knows there are a few companies offering student ridership programs, El Dorado is the only other school district in Arkansas that has Smart Tag. He said all of the parents he has talked to are “on board with it.”
Stanley said, “We really appreciate the fact that David is proactive in this.” Dale said, “It’s kind of the UPS background. I couldn’t just do paper everything. It was driving me crazy.”
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