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It Takes a Pandemic to Prove The Power of Yellow

In lockstep with U.S. Department of Education requirements, an FAQ posted on the Maryland State Department of Education website points out that amid COVID-19 closures, “Students remain entitled to related services under their Individualized Education Program (IEP). Local public agencies should consider how these services, such as speech and language therapy, may be provided virtually.”

The keywords in that sentence are “may be.” Some students with disabilities, as well as their general education peers, may be able to learn in an online environment. But for others, the new eLearning model is failing them, for the simple fact that they need hands-on attention in a traditional classroom environment.

The same applies to the school bus. All students, not simply those with disabilities, need continuity. The school bus literally drives stability for tens of millions of children each “normal” school day. In a snap of the fingers, that safety net was pulled out from under them. Society already faced a mental health crisis. It’s only worsening with children and adults alike, which is yet another issue for student transportation leaders to address.

Despite relatively no current school bus service for any students, period, aside from continued meal and school supply delivery in some areas, student transporters obviously can’t simply wash their hands of their responsibilities to any student population. Not the least of which are those with disabilities or students who are experiencing homelessness or are in foster care. The industry is pouring extensive effort into figuring out how to maintain physical distancing requirements while also providing hands-on service to these students.

But what about general education students? They have been more frequently mentioned as perhaps the most plausible victims of any school bus service reduction that results from the COVID-19 health crisis. Suddenly, the “California model” of only transporting students who are afforded protections under federal law is becoming a more realistic response to highly possible school bus cuts.

And if we are being honest, in many parts of the county school busing has already been trending this way. For decades now, the industry has been dealing with extended walking distances, the politically correct way of telling students and parents that their bus privileges are being revoked because school district administrations and school boards can no longer afford it, or they don’t want to. The words “essential service” have become the driving force behind who gets school busing, and who does not.

Students who live on farms located an hour from their local schools, or in crime-infested areas that are not safe to walk, will rightly argue that school busing is essential. As will those who live across town from their school of choice. Or on tribal government land, where money can be so scarce that some Native Americans don’t have running water to wash their hands. That’s not to mention the parents who rely on the school bus because of their work schedules, which should soon return to some semblance of normalcy.

As John Benish, Jr., president of the National School Transportation Association, told me last month, stopping school bus service nationwide in March was a relatively easy albeit extremely sad task, especially with the livelihood of employees at stake. However, ramping back up presents the industry with its biggest challenge yet.

As draft guidance released last month to Maryland school districts points out, transporting students with special needs who are prone to spitting, screaming, biting and other behaviors may spread COVID-19. Districts must develop policies for taking student temperatures before allowing them on the bus. Pre- and post-trip inspections will include cleaning high-use areas. School systems will need to be prepared to enact contact tracing, if a student rider tests positive. The list goes on.

As a reader pointed out recently, this is the hardest job student transporters have ever undertaken.

The industry is asking its toughest questions yet, in an effort to find answers to try and solve the riddles set out before it. Now is not only the time for out-of-the-box thinking but also sharing doses of reality with school administrations, school boards, and local and state politicians. And most importantly staff and parents. Our situation may also finally prove the true worth of the yellow school bus and its dedicated professionals to national education, the economy and society as a whole.

Editor’s Note: As reprinted from the June issue of School Transportation News. 

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