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Back to School and the New Normal

As I set out to write this month’s column, I commented to my wife that the growing concern voiced to me by industry professionals regarding the Delta variant of COVID-19 was reminiscent of late February 2020, weeks before the U.S., Canada and the rest of the world shut down. It couldn’t be that the highly contagious strain might plunge society back in the isolating waters of distance learning, working and living, right? Right?

In attempt to quell these fears, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said last month that shutting down the country again and keeping children home in virtual learning was not an option. Hopefully those won’t be famous last words. Days later, Education Week reported that the number of school districts planning to return to hybrid learning models had doubled in the matter of a month. Meanwhile, school districts—where allowed by their state governor, and even then some are choosing to defy orders—are once again requiring masks be worn by students and staff, both at school and on the school bus. As one district in Arizona reminded me last month, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention federal directive that requires masks on all school buses and public transit remains in effect, which has been lost on Gov. Doug Ducey.

Then in August and about a week before this issue went to print, California ordered all K-12 school staff to be vaccinated. Will more states follow? Perhaps, especially as the all-powerful American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association supports such a move nationwide.

Related: California Mandates COVID-19 Vaccines for All School Staff
Related: Washington State Vaccine Mandate Exacerbates School Bus Driver Shortage
Related: (STN Podcast E66) Getting Back to In-Person: Tracking Decisions on Student Vaccinations, School Reopening

As of Aug. 9, nearly 51 percent of Americans were fully vaccinated, according to the Mayo Clinic. The total U.S. population is about 332 million, and about 48 million people are currently under the minimum vaccination age of 12 years old. That means of the roughly 284 million who are eligible for a vaccine, only 144 million are actually vaccinated.

It follows logic that vaccination rates increase with age, with the age group 65 to 74 leading the charge at 82 percent. Next are those 75 and older at 78 percent, followed by 50- to 64-year-olds at 68 percent and 40- to 49-year-olds at 59 percent. Nearly half of 25- to 39-yearolds are fully vaccinated as are about 45 percent of 18- to 24-year-olds. Clearly, not all school bus drivers or teachers or other school staff are vaccinated, despite massive drives to do so. What is more alarming to me and it should be to the industry is that only 12 percent of eligible children are fully vaccinated. The vast majority of school bus customers—the students—are riding without protection as classes resume, even as the Delta variant is proving to make them sicker than the original virus.

I hope that schools don’t close their traditional classrooms again in favor of distance learning, not with a first grader and a three-month old at home. But I’d be lying if I didn’t say I was concerned about my 6-year-old daughter not being vaccinated. Still, my immediate family will deal. And ultimately the student transportation community will as well, especially amid all of the precautions in place. Last school year and the spring of 2020 proved the resiliency and courage of the entire school bus industry.

Related: Los Angeles Unified School District Announces 6,500 COVID-19 Cases at Startup
Related: Survey Indicates Fewer Students Will Take School Bus Amid COVID-19
Related: New York Public Transportation Agency Assists with School Bus Driver Shortage

No matter what happens, tens of thousands of school buses and their support staff are equipped to resume food delivery, which remains a vital necessity for so many people. And regardless of hybrid or in-person learning, a sizeable gap remains between students in households that have broadband internet and those without. These services should and in many places nationwide this school year will continue to be a new mission of school bus transportation, which it must be noted is being buoyed by federal funding that will be needed going forward.

This industry has done a superb job in inserting itself as a central figure in the national COVID-19 discourse, and that spotlight in part carried over to legislation that promises unprecedented federal funding for zero- and low-emissions school bus purchases. This has been achieved in part through an evolution of what student transportation services look like. The perception of the public and students toward the yellow school bus needed to change, and more work remains.

That can be accomplished by getting back to the new normal rather than the old. The industry needs to continuously strive to be seen as a viable solution to 21st Century challenges. Utilize as much government funding as possible for as long as it’s available to help make that happen. In the meantime, stay healthy out there.

Editor’s Note: As reprinted in the September 2021 issue of School Transportation News. 

Related: New School Year Not Return to Normal California Directors Hoped For
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