It was an iconic scene: Backpack-laden youngsters filing off a yellow school bus, ready to start another day.
But before they walked down the bus steps, these Gretna Elementary students paused for a step familiar to many office workers.
They reached for the white plastic cards strung on the lanyards around their necks and swiped them in front of a card reader.
The card readers, along with the GPS devices the district installed on its buses this year, are intended to bolster safety and security, said Superintendent Kevin Riley.
Students scan in when they get on and scan out when they get off so the district can track who’s on board. And the GPS system tracks the buses — where they stop, even how fast they’re going and whether they stop at railroad crossings and stop signs.
If there’s an accident, the district knows where the bus is and who’s on board. If a bus breaks down, school officials can call riders’ parents or guardians and tell them they’re running late. And if a child gets off at a different stop to play with a friend or goes home with mom or dad, they can quickly track him.
“There’s a safety element there. There’s just good information there,” he said.
The ability to keep tabs is important because the district transports 2,000 kids over 70 square miles. Some are on the bus for as long as an hour, said Rich Beran, assistant superintendent.
“Even though we’re next to the metro,” he said, “we’re kind of a rural district with lots of corn and lots of miles to travel.”
Riley said the district originally set out to just add GPS systems to buses as part of the security upgrades included in its 2010 bond issue. The district this year also began locking all school doors during the school day and requiring visitors to gain entry through a video intercom system.
But as they began exploring options, he said, they learned about the card-reader system.
Jason Corbally, president of Education Logistics, said the Gretna district is the only school system in Nebraska or Iowa using the company’s student tracking system. About 50 districts nationwide currently use it, including the 1,400-bus Broward County Public Schools in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.
“It definitely is the up and coming trend,” Corbally said.
Other districts, including Millard and Omaha, track buses with GPS systems. The Millard and Omaha buses also carry surveillance cameras and a so-called “child check” system that requires that drivers check to make sure no child is left on board by walking to the back of the bus at the end of their route and pushing a button.
Beran said the startup cost for the GPS and the card systems was just under $50,000. The district will pay an annual fee for the GPS service.
Some initially were concerned that kids would lose the cards, Riley said. But students have worn passes with their names on them for some time with few problems.
Jayden Haley and Raya Dzingle, both fifth-graders at Gretna Elementary, agreed that swiping the cards isn’t really a big change for them. And they feel safer.
“I like using them,” Jayden said.
Beran said another concern was that the cards would bog down the boarding process. “But it really hasn’t slowed things down as much as people feared,” he said.
Niki Osborn said the system should provide quicker answers for parents like her if kids don’t arrive at bus stops as scheduled. Her son, now a sixth-grader, missed his stop last year. She called the school, but he wasn’t there. The driver brought him to the stop after finishing the rest of the route.
Bridget Chatterson, too, welcomed the new feature. Last year, her son, now in middle school, slept through his stop. The driver didn’t see him behind the seats. He didn’t ride the bus consistently, so the driver didn’t know to look for him.
“There’s definitely a security feeling there,” she said.