Parents and students in two of Minnesota's largest school districts will have some extra help catching the bus when the school year begins this fall.
The Minneapolis and Rosemount-Apple Valley-Eagan districts will begin using a bus-tracking mobile app called "Here Comes the Bus" that will provide real-time updates about when school buses are nearing scheduled stops — and when they're running late.
The two districts join others around the metro area that have already been using similar apps for a few years, bringing schools in line with public transit and ride-sharing services that offer tracking services and instant route updates. Karen DeVet, chief operating officer for Minneapolis Public Schools, said school officials have been hearing from parents who want more information about when buses are coming and going.
"I think there's an assumption that the technology is readily available," she said. "So much is done with GPS and apps on the phone that it seems natural you'd be able to see your student's bus, from a safety perspective."
In Minneapolis, getting the app up and running has required two years of planning. The district contracts with six different transportation providers, and each had to be connected to the system through tablets installed on each school bus. (Drivers must sign in before setting off on a route to ensure the GPS tracking is working.)
Parents will have to download the app and sign in using an ID number specific to their student. They'll be able to see only their student's bus, and will receive an alert when the bus is nearing the student's stop.
"The app tracks the bus, not the student," DeVet said.
The Rosemount-Apple Valley-Eagan district is trying out the app during a summer program that begins later this month. If all goes well, it will go districtwide in the fall. Karen Dayton, the district's coordinator of transportation, said parents will be able to set the range at which they want to receive notifications about the bus nearing a stop and can receive instant updates if the bus is running late.
Dayton said she expects the app will be particularly useful in the winter months when students and parents aim to avoid long waits at the bus stop.
"A lot of kids wait until the last minute to come outside, and for that I think this is going to be very helpful," she said.
That's been the case in the Anoka-Hennepin district, which has been using a different bus-tracking app for more than a year. Transportation director Keith Paulson said the district saw an uptick in usage this winter, when the weather turned particularly cold and snowy.
At its peak, the system had about 5,000 parents tracking about 10,000 students — about a third of the students eligible for bus transportation in the district.
"As it gets colder and colder, if a bus is running late, then parents know," Paulson said.
The Anoka-Hennepin district's app, FirstView, provides specific alerts to parents if their student's bus encounters mechanical trouble or if it's been replaced by another bus.
The Bloomington school district, an early adopter of bus-tracking apps, has been allowing parents to track buses for more than five years. The district's My Stop app also allows school officials to monitor all of the buses, track performance issues, or see if a bus missed a stop.
"It gives us instant feedback about where the buses are," said Tim Rybak, the district's director of operations.
As bus-tracking apps become more common, school systems that aren't yet using them are paying close attention to other districts' experiences.
St. Paul Public Schools has experimented with a tracking system that requires students to scan an ID card when they get on a bus, but district spokesman Kevin Burns said it wasn't popular with parents — and wasn't accurate when students misplaced their cards.
Parents can use an app that provides alerts if a bus is running late, but can't get real-time tracking information. Burns said district officials are interested in a more comprehensive system, and he expects the district will launch one within the next few years.
"There are a number of factors all of us have to consider," he said. "Cost, as well as data privacy concerns and other similar issues need to be at the forefront."