Next school year, Pickerington Schools' buses will operate with new software designed to enhance navigation, increase safety for student riders and allow parents to track wherebuses are in real time, district officials said.

At the outset of the 2019-20 school year, Pickerington Schools and its transportation-services provider, Petermann Bus Services, outfitted each of the district's 73 buses with tablet computers and Tyler Drive software.

Through the course of this school year, the equipment and software have been gradually put in operation for each of the district's 64 bus routes so officials could acclimate drivers in preparation for use in the 2020-21 school year and to troubleshoot problems that might arise.

The tablets, which are in use on 30 routes, provide turn-by-turn navigation. They are expected to be in use on all 64 routes by the end of March, district officials said.

By next school year, all of the district's bus drivers will be using the tablets instead of traditional printed directions.

Parents would be able to use an app on their smartphones and other devices to track their children's buses.

"You can imagine the challenge for new and substitute drivers under the paper form system," said Greg Kelley, Pickerington Schools transportation supervisor.

"Picture what it would be like if you had to make stops at 10 locations and were handed typed directions on several pieces of paper, compared to the route provided by a navigational system.

"This new system will help keep routes on time and offers several reports for the transportation office to use in comparing planned route times verses actual route times utilizing (global-positioning systems)," he said.

"No system is without its own challenges, but we feel this will be a great tool in the endeavor of offering the safest and most efficient pupil transportation to our community."

Kelley and Petermann general manager Robert Weinheimer said the Tyler Drive system helps lessen the learning curve at the beginning of a school year for regular drivers and throughout the year for substitute drivers.

They said the system also increases driver efficiency, particularly when there are road closures or traffic issues that GPS can detect.

The app would allow transportation staff to more easily update the tracking system when spare buses will be in use, as well as allow for electronic transfer of routes to drivers that will help cover other routes. Officials said they believe it could help in recruiting and retaining transportation staff members.

"The goal for every run of every day is to transport students safely and on time," Weinheimer said. "We've found that the tablet is a lot safer when compared to a sub driver who is juggling route sheets in the dark and driving a 30,000-pound vehicle.

"The tablet allows the driver to focus more on the roadway, mirrors and passengers because the tablet will audibly tell the driver where to go.

"Our goal with Tyler Drive is to minimize the delays on the days routes are covered by subs, all the while keeping the student's environment as safe as possible," he said.

The cost of the Tyler Drive system is included in the district's contract with Petermann.

In 2019-20, the district's transportation costs for busing "typical" students -- those who are not special needs students -- is expected to be approximately $3.9 million, according to Kelley. He said those costs in 2020-21 are expected to be approximately $4.02 million.

Kelley said the district's per-pupil transportation costs for typical students is roughly $699 a year, which is down from $715 in 2018-19 and is below the Ohio Department of Education's reported state average of $1,004.99.

Kelley said paper forms that traditionally have provided directions to drivers will remain in buses to serve as a backup in case technical issues occur.

District officials said when the 2020-21 school year begins Aug. 13, they expect parents will be able to download the My Stop bus app to track buses in real time.

"It will be a free app for their electronic devices, phones, laptops, etc.," Kelley said. "The Tyler training for the app will be done this month for the transportation staff.

"It will be communicated to parents this summer. We already have the Petermann Bus Tracker that utilizes the student ID to login, and My Stop will do the same."

The district could implement another feature offered by Tyler Drive through which students would carry identification cards they would swipe each time they enter or leave buses.

Kelley said the district is still exploring use of the cards and analyzing logistics, including giving each school building the capacity to create replacements if a student loses the card or it gets damaged.