The process of boarding a school bus will soon change for all students in the Alexandria School District.

New technology is being tested now in what the district is calling Phase II on all buses to help identify which students are actually on a bus. This technology will have other benefits, which includes allowing parents to check their child's bus route.

The Alexandria district is among the few districts in Minnesota to experiment with a new level of transportation technology, school officials say.

"There is a heightened awareness of security for our students in all aspects of their school life," Julie Critz, Alexandria school superintendent, said. "This was one area that we realized needed improvement."

Critz stated that the district has always been aware of which students may be riding various bus routes, but daily schedules for students and their families may change, which means they may not be riding the bus they should be on any given day. Perhaps they had practice after school or they got picked up by a parent or they rode a bus to a friend's house.

"We need to be accountable for the whereabouts of our children while they are under our care," Critz said. "This upgrade will allow us to have an accurate list of students riding each bus, each day. While we hope there is never a need, we want to be absolutely certain that we are contacting the right parents if there is ever a crisis situation on one of our buses."

Phase II includes a pin pad system for bus drivers that will locate routes and keep track of students on their bus. This will help drivers determine the names of students and their usual location, and create a log of student riders to ensure they are on the correct bus. All students, from kindergarten through 12th grade, will be required to use their student ID card or lunch account password to board the bus.

Parents will be able to log onto an app on their mobile devices to monitor real time locations of their child's bus route. In the event of a bus accident, the program will be equipped with latest notifications and updates.

TripSpark Technologies, a transportation company that works with mid-level public transit agencies, is currently working with the school district to test the new technology.

The Alexandria district explored how a similar system was working in West Fargo, and that was used as a model, said the district's human resources director, Scott Heckert.

"We did a number of inquiries with a number of different companies and we picked a company that suited our needs," Heckert said.

He said that the bus drivers are in an instructional phrase, which gives them an opportunity to test the new technology, allows administrators to correct bus routes, and helps students practice scanning their student ID cards that will be used for boarding buses.

Two-phase upgrade

The school district says it is making progress during its test runs and is on schedule to fully implement Phase II within the next month, either prior to the winter break or immediately after it.

Despite the initial concerns that the new technology could slow down bus boarding, school officials are confident that the new technology will operate efficiently without any issues.

"This will take some time to learn the process of scanning, because the students are used to going on the bus free wheeling," Heckert said.

Kevin Brezina, the district's technology director, said scanning a student's school ID will help the school and the bus driver keep track of who's on the bus and avoid any safety concerns. A pin pad for bus drivers will also keep track of whether the student is riding on the correct assigned bus.

Last May, the district began implementing its two-phase transportation program. Phase I included installing GPS systems, Wi-Fi and cameras in various spots on the school bus, and an overhaul of the transportation system. The Wi-Fi was made accessible for all students to use.

"The reason why we included Wi-Fi is not just for student access, but also to push through the second phase of this program," Heckert said.