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Hortonville bus drivers turn to tech to track students

GPS program could lessen parents’ worries

By Scott Bellile

Almost every evening, a parent calls the Hortonville Area School District’s bus garage feeling frantic because their child did not walk through the front door.

Typically poor communication among the family is the cause for panic: The child stayed at school or went to play at the neighbor’s house but did not tell Mom or Dad.

In hopes of reducing these stressful moments for families, HASD is testing an online program where school district officials and parents can check if the child rode the bus.

“It just kind of reduces the timeframe that the parent is sitting there wondering where their child is. … It’s very traumatic for parents, more so than for the kids usually,” HASD Transportation Director Harry Steenbock said.

HASD is currently conducting a trial of the program UniteGPS on two of its school buses.

About 180 student riders carry a card that they swipe when they board or leave the bus. Swiping the card notifies the transportation department the child is on or off his or her assigned bus.

Hortonville Area School District students swipe their ID cards into this electronic reader when they board the bus if they ride either of the two school buses that are part of the UniteGPS trial.
Scott Bellile photo

Eventually parents would have the capability of viewing a real-time GPS track of their child’s bus and see how close to home it is. They could also get notified when their child boards and exits the bus.

“They could get a text alert, ‘Johnny got on the bus. Johnny got off the bus,’” Hortonville School Board member Craig Dreier said at a board meeting in November. “If there were any issues as far as getting on the bus as they scan their card, if they’re not supposed to be on that bus, that alert would take place so that bus driver would know right away something’s wrong instead of letting them on the [incorrect] bus and [as a result] we spend an hour and a half looking for a child because he didn’t get dropped off.”

Steenbock recently told the Press Star two memories motivated him to try a program that keeps track of children.
One of them was a conversation he had with a friend.

“He was in manufacturing, and he says, ‘I can track a can of peas around the world, but you can’t tell me where my kid is? Really?’” Steenbock said.

The other memory was a state tragedy. A bus transporting Chippewa Falls High School’s marching band collided with a semi in 2005. The crash killed five passengers and injured 30.

Steenbock said the only person who had a student roster on that bus was the band director who was killed. As a result, parents did not know immediately if their children were on that bus or a different one.

“I want to know where these kids are so if something happens, I know who’s on the bus, where they’re at and who I’ve got to get a hold of,” Steenbock said of Hortonville’s riders. “I want to know that now. I don’t want to know that an hour from now.”

HASD has experimented with various tracking programs since 2014 but did not find the right one until UniteGPS, Steenbock said.

Nonetheless, he said he first wants to expand the trial from two buses to 12 and test UniteGPS further before committing to buying the program.

It would cost $40,000 per year to use UniteGPS for the HASD’s approximately 3,400 riders. That number of riders includes local parochial school students HASD transports.

“Because of the cost and everything involved, I don’t want to spend that money and then it doesn’t work when we get a lot of kids doing it,” Steenbock said.

HASD is the only school district using Maine-based UniteGPS’s tracking and mapping applications, Steenbock said.

“It’s interesting and exciting,” Steenbock said of the technology. “I’m kind of anxious for it because I know we can deliver so much more for the parents and the students of the district.”

At the Nov. 26, 2018 Hortonville School Board meeting, board Clerk Brett Eidahl urged the district to check into UniteGPS’s privacy guidelines and how it handles students’ personal information.

Hortonville Area School District buses leave the Greenville school bus garage to pick up students after school on Feb. 10, 2016. Scott Bellile file photo

“I mean, if they’re bringing up pictures of kids, names of kids, if you can go on any phone and track where any kid is at any point in time, I’d be just wondering what the safety protocols are in place for that,” Eidahl said.

Steenbock replied that parents would use a secured login through the school district’s Skyward portal to access information on their child only.

Steenbock told the Press Star one parent has expressed fear of “Big Brother” monitoring their children.

“But overwhelmingly I’ve had more parents asking me when are they going to have that,” he said of UniteGPS. “And the kids love that they’ve been doing it. They’ve been really responsible having their cards pretty much, and like I say, it gives them a ‘big boy’ feeling.”

HASD bus driver David King agreed. He said his young passengers were initially fascinated by their ID cards, which reminded them of hotel room key cards. The students remain proud to have them.

King said he hopes one day HASD can use facial recognition software to scan in student riders, bypassing physical ID cards altogether.

The school district does not want to be “Big Brother,” but school safety is a huge issue today, King said. Keeping tabs on where students are is one way to practice safety.

“I think most students are aware of the need for security and safety,” King added.

Bus drivers also benefit from UniteGPS by having their own digital map they can view as they drive, King said. This is especially useful to substitute bus drivers who are not familiar with their route.

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