Besides updating school bus schedules and rerouting for the new school year, training driver staff on cleaning requirements, and establishing transportation procedures based on state guidance, student transportation departments also have to be cognitive of their office environments and how they play a role in spreading COVID-19.
For instance, when schools nationwide shut down in March, the staff at Springdale Public Schools, located north of Fayetteville, Arkansas, realized early-on that their transportation facility was not conducive to social distancing practices.
Trisha Labit, the district’s school bus safety coordinator, said some of the staff was still reporting to work when schools shut down. She noted that drivers could walk in and out of the office when they pleased, and there was no separation between workspaces.
In the middle of June, the staff decided to change that. Labit noted the office needed a remodel anyway. With the help of Kevin Conkin, who oversees transportation and construction operations, the staff went to work.
Labit explained that she and her coworkers removed the reception area, adding a sliding glass window for visitors to speak with the receptionist. She noted that anyone who wants to enter the building now must be buzzed-in at the front door, and the back entrance now requires a key.
She noted that this helps ensure that no more than 10 people are in the office at one time.
Other improvements were made to the staff break room and the kitchen. Labit said the driver break room didn’t undergo too many changes, but the staff did add signs stating where drivers can and can’t sit, as well as signs that encourage frequent hand sanitizing and the required wearing of face masks.
She said because a lot of the work was done themselves, costs weren’t too high. They made it a priority to use as many recycled materials as they could, as well as their own personal manual labor. Labit said, laughing, that she would be happy if she never had to see another paintbrush again.
However, despite the office improvements, drivers are still fearful of getting back on the bus. She said Springdale Public Schools is giving parents the option to decide if they want to send their children back to full-time, in-person learning or keep them at home for virtual learning for school start-up on Aug. 24. Labit said only 10 percent of student riders opted for all-virtual learning. The district is still required to transport 13,500 students in the upcoming school year.
“There’s no possible way we could do social distancing [on the school bus],” Labit explained. She shared that students and drivers will be required to wear masks on the bus, and the buses will be deep cleaned after the midday and afternoon routes. The district is also providing drivers with additional masks, in case students forget theirs at home or lose them during school hours.
However, she reported that due to fears of contracting COVID-19, Springdale Public Schools has already lost 17 bus drivers and three bus aides.
She said drivers were given an option to take up to a one-year leave of absence and still have their jobs and same route waiting for them. The district also offered resignation on the promise that the staff will be hired back when they feel more comfortable driving again. But she added that some of the older drivers opted for retirement.
Labit said the district is now down eight drivers, but she is already currently in the process of training four new applicants, as she also serves as a third-party examiner for the state. She said that she’s been receiving a lot of calls from potential applicants who don’t have their commercial driver’s license but are interested in driving a bus.
“This is the biggest boom [in applicants] that I’ve seen in a while,” Labit said. Noting that the new interest could be attributed to local manufacturing plants closing, as well as restaurants reducing staff.
A statewide “stay-at-home” order was never implemented, but many high-contact businesses like health clubs and personal care facilities were closed. They reopened on May 6. On July 20, Gov. Asa Hutchinson implemented a mask mandate, as the state has seen one of the steepest increases in coronavirus cases since reopening the economy.
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