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Clearing the Air

It comes as no surprise that the rate of onboard cleaning and disinfecting has skyrocketed over the past year. In fact, according to reader survey results released this month, over 82 percent pf transportation directors polled said their operations have implemented the use of industrial- strength cleaning and disinfecting solutions on school buses, since COVID-19 took hold. Nearly three-quarters are also now using electrostatic sprayers.

Long before COVID-19, I heard school buses often referred to as rolling cesspools, due to the number of germs introduced by student riders. From sticky fingers and runny noses to sneezing and coughing, bus drivers could be easily forgiven for wanting to wear Haz-mat suits.

Still, it took a pandemic to force school districts and bus companies to escalate deep cleaning from maybe a once weekly exercise to a daily, even hourly endeavor. But what will be the long- term effects of introducing harmful chemicals at such frequency onto school buses.

I watched in disbelief in late January as a superintendent for a New Jersey school district recounted during a school board meeting how he stood inside an ambulance during the testy of an automatic spray system that is being donated for school buses. (Thankfully, we later learned that water was used for demonstration purposes).

My point is, do we really know the chemical makeup of what we are spraying and wiping down? According to your survey, which you can learn more about in this month’s magazine edition, 82 percent of readers say they do. At least, they think they do. But that also means 18 percent unequivocally say they do not.

Dr. Richard Cooper explains, starting on page 54, what student transporters need to be considering when making decisions on how to address COVID-19 mitigations throughout their fleets. Simply verifying that products used are listed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is not enough. Little if any research has been done to quantify or qualify the health impacts of introducing such high amounts of chemicals into our everyday lives.

But information from readers is trickling in on the effects on bus components. Albeit small numbers, about 10 percent of readers admit that the solutions they use have resulted in some damage or discoloration to seat vinyl, for example. Or a sticky residue is left behind. A small price to pay, one might retort, for providing peace of mind to parents. But is it really? We simply do not know yet.

What has come more into focus is how the SARA-CoV-2 virus that causes COVID-19 is primarily transmitted, and that is via airborne particles, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. However, our reader survey indicates that onboard ventilation systems are the least used mitigation tool at not quite 5.5. percent. This may be due to the relatively recent revelation, stemming from research on how the virus is spread, and because for the first several months of the pandemic the authorities preached the need to wipe down and spray and disinfect everything.

Yes, ventilation systems cost a couple of hundred dollars to over a thousand dollars per unit. The U.S. Department of Education has confirmed, however, that this technology can be purchased with federal relief funds. But what about when those funds expire, which hopefully will be by next years, signaling that no further relief package is necessary because society is properly vaccinated against COVID-19. There is a concern from some transportation professionals about finding future funds to pay for these systems.

That’s perhaps not the way to look at the issue. There are, after all, plenty of examples of unfunded mandates that have made their way into school bus budget line items, not the least of which are new emissions standards for diesel engines. It takes dexterity and out-of-the-box ideas, but student transporters are skilled at identifying efficiencies to uncover new funding streams, to provide an ever-evolving and higher level of service for millions of students.

We may finally be seeing indications that we are on the way toward overcoming this pandemic, but COVID-19 isn’t going away. It will join the flu and even the common cold as annual annoyances to public educators. With the right mix of research and planning, school buses can align with classrooms to provide a new source of sustainable, clean air solutions. In doing so, they both could also further extend their influence in the greater public health discussions.

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

April 2021

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