On a recent morning of fresh snow, Victoria seventh-grader Emma Aspelin and her father, Paul, headed out to Emma's school-bus stop. When Paul didn't return to the house as quickly as usual, mom Michelle found herself wondering.
Was the bus late? Would it come at all? Had it slipped off an icy road?
Thanks to a new application recently made available to parents in the Eastern Carver County School District, she was able to use her cellphone to get answers.
"I could see that her bus was, like, 20 minutes late," Michelle Aspelin said. "Her bus finally got [here and] I could follow the bus along the route to get to school. I was thankful to have [the application] and see it."
The southwest metro school district, which serves 9,400 students from Victoria, Carver, Chanhassen and Chaska, rolled out the Web-based MyStop application on Jan. 29. It lets parents view up-to-the-minute GPS information on school-bus whereabouts. While other metro area districts are testing pilot versions, Eastern Carver County appears to be the only metro district that has fully implemented the technology. Other districts say they'll soon follow suit.
Like many area school districts, Eastern Carver County already had GPS technology in its 115 buses, which ferry about 8,000 riders daily, according to district transportation coordinator John Thomas. Now that information is made available to parents, guardians and students via a user-specific login and password. Users can see location information about only their own bus, as well as its estimated time of arrival at their assigned stop, Thomas said. Parents also can track their bus on their phones, tablets and computers.
Implementing MyStop was free. It was an additional feature offered by Versatrans, the company that oversees the district's GPS technology, Thomas said.
Thomas said the application should help reduce the number of phone calls from parents with questions and worries about bus times. In a winter as arduous as this one, that's been very valuable, he said.
Calls, concerns are fewer
The Aspelins have two daughters in the Eastern Carver County schools. The older, Emma, attends Chaska Middle School East and rides the school bus to and from school. The younger, Sarah, a fifth-grader at Victoria Elementary School, rides the bus home from school.
The Aspelins, who are self-employed, have a flexible schedule, so one of them is usually able to wait with Emma at the bus stop in the morning. But they know that many parents have to rely on friends, neighbors or cellphones to find out whether a student got on the bus, Michelle Aspelin said. It's great that those parents now can verify that their children were picked up, she said.
Tim Peterson of Victoria, who has two children in the Eastern Carver County schools, said he finds MyStop great for time management. He likes knowing when the bus gets to school and when his children will arrive home.
"You didn't know if there was a problem before," Peterson said, noting that there have been times when he or his wife would call the school to find out where the buses were.
Others to jump on board
Other metro area schools are testing or considering MyStop or a similar program.
Bloomington schools are running a pilot MyStop program and hopes to have it available to families soon, according to Tom Oestreich, the district's director of transportation. This year's extreme cold has increased demand for such an application, Oestreich said. He said he doesn't want to see kids sent out to the bus stop earlier than necessary, noting that weather and traffic can affect schedules.
"School buses are not a science," Oestreich said.
"Bottom line is for the safety of the kids," Oestreich said.
Stillwater schools also plan to install MyStop this spring, test it this summer and make the app available to parents by fall, said Dennis Bloom, the district's director of operations.
Hopkins and St. Paul public schools also are looking into making GPS information available to parents.
"It's something parents want," said Tom Meyer, from the St. Paul district. "Most districts are looking into it."
Michelle Aspelin thinks that's great. "If they're going to roll it out to other districts, that's fantastic, too," she said. "I like it for that peace of mind."
Danielle Dullinger is a University of Minnesota student reporter on assignment for the Star Tribune.