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Masks Up (and Off?)

They can be annoying. They don’t always fit correctly, and they can fog up eyeglasses. They’ve created a new economy and come in all sorts of colors and styles. You know what they I‘m referring to.

A little over a year ago, face masks entered the global lexicon, the result of the pandemic’s spread. The World Health Organization, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and every state and local department of health required their widescale use. But it’s a brand new day.

Related: (STN Podcast E66) Getting Back to In-Person: Tracking Decisions on Student Vaccinations, School Reopening

The CDC announced last month that all fully vaccinated Americans can put their masks away, at least in most circumstances and where local ordinances allow. Studies are showing that the vaccines are over 90-percent effective in mitigating the spread of COVID-19. But they are not full proof, as an outbreak among Major League Baseball’s New York Yankees showed. And despite most states relaxing their mask and social distancing requirements, if not completely reopening the economy (as even California was prepared to do this month), precautions continue.

This is no more evident than in the nation’s school districts, where many continued to require students and staff to wear masks at least in common areas through the end of the school year. But relaxing the national mask advisories signal sea change, at least we hope. As the U.S. inches closer toward the elusive herd immunity, the Biden administration has called for all schools to prepare to reopen for in-person classes five days a week starting in August and September. It’s big news when the largest teacher’s union, the American Federation of Teachers, makes a similar recommendation. Already, the student transportation industry is reopening to in-person conferences, as evidenced by several state association events scheduled for this month, and of course our own this fall.

This all adds up, obviously, to promising news. Everyone wants to get back to “normal,” but more importantly for this industry the goal is for all students to return to traditional classes and school buses. Certainly, virtual learning will continue in some shape or form. School districts must offer parents and students the option to access education remotely. And as I’ve previously written, online academies and small-scale remote learning “hubs” now exist. These will affect transportation at some level, as will budget uncertainty and the ongoing bus driver shortage.

Many unknowns remain. At the top of my personal concerns is will student transporters be able to travel this fall or at any point during the 2021-2022 school year to national conferences? The consensus from school district and bus company professionals as well as manufacturers and vendors is that in-person events can’t come fast enough. But will school districts continue to exercise caution for fear of a new spread? Perhaps or perhaps not. For most of us, that’s out of our control.

Related: (STN Podcast E54) The Future Is Bright: Eyeing School Reopening & Electric Bus Opportunities
Related: Police Called After Special Needs Student Removes Face Mask On Bus
Related: States Lift Mask Mandates, School Districts Following Suit?

What we can affect is how we all prepare for the upcoming school year, planning and training that has already begun in earnest, especially as extended summer school programs ramp up. The coming months are shaping up to be the busiest any of us have experienced. But they could also be the most exhilarating, as the prospect of fully re-engaging with students and coworkers is looking to be more real every day. That surely beats the purgatory of last summer.

We need to collectively return to some semblance of normalcy and fast, as everyone especially the students have been negatively impacted by school closures and all the related uncertainties. People continue to hurt, from malnourishment caused by job loss, lack of services like reliable internet connections, and mental health effects, just to name a few.

Rome wasn’t built in a day, and neither will school districts and school buses immediately pick up where they left off, not to mention addressing all the inequities that already existed and that were exacerbated or revealed by COVID-19. There are plenty of obstacles, operational and otherwise, to overcome. But student transportation literally holds the keys to getting society and schools on their feet again.

Be good to yourself and to others. As the saying goes, eat the proverbial elephant one bite at a time. The light at the end of the tunnel can be seen more clearly, whether viewed through a facemask or not.

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

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