With California continuing to lead the U.S. in positive COVID-19 cases, fully reopening all schools for in-person education this semester looks far-fetched. However, many counties are reporting infection rates low enough to offer some sort of in-person learning and subsequentially transportation services.
While Los Angeles County still has the highest infection rates in the state, 283,750 positive cases as of this writing, other smaller counties are barely breaking 1,000 cases. Gov. Gavin Newsome outlined a tiered approach to reopening California, which is based on the county’s infection rates and determines if schools are among the approved list.
For instance, San Luis Obispo County along the central coast is reporting 3,924 positive cases and is allowed to fully reopen for in-person instruction based on the direction of local school officials. For those counties given the approval to reopen to some degree, the California Association of School Transportation Officials (CASTO) released a document to help transportation operations in the reopening process.
The association hosted a webinar on Oct. 9 that discussed the five sections of the document, “Road Map on Guidance to Reopening Pupil Transportation,” which was released on Aug. 21. These topics include site safety, staff safety, student safety, training, and vehicle safety.
Rose Lee, a member of the CASTO Reopening Committee and the director of transportation for Bonita Unified School District, said during the webinar that reopening school districts need to consider how to social distance in school bus driver break rooms. She advised staggering employee breaks and staff schedules. She also encouraged supervisors to walk through the employee area to establish walking paths, and to post health and safety signage on the walls. One sign she recommends is a maximum occupancy sign.
Lee noted that purchasing barriers to create distance in break rooms might not always be necessary. Instead, she said furniture can be used to create that same effect. She also recommended removing certain, available seating in some instances, so employees don’t sit close together.
Lee also discussed sanitization and janitorial work, which consist of routine hands washing, no sharing of materials, and wiping down frequently touched areas.
She said if vendors come onsite, there should be a new protocol put into place. For instance, visitors should be prescreened and should sign in. They should also wear the appropriate personal protective equipment (PPE), such as masks, and use the correct entrance and exit points.
Nanette Rondeau, CASTO Chapter 6 President, said that staff safety is paramount to one’s operation. She said enacting policies are critical to slowing the spread of COVID-19 and advised districts to consider social distancing at facilities, the use of PPE, and staff cohorts.
Rondeau, who is also the director of transportation at the Tahoe Truckee Unified School District, added that employees should disinfect between shifts and usage of select equipment, this includes copy machines, staplers, surfaces in office areas, etc.
When employees show up to work, there should be a protocol in place that they have either screened themselves prior to reporting that day or they are screened upon arrival to the facility, she said. PPE, including masks, gloves and hand sanitizer, should also be made available to staff, as well as training on frequent and proper handwashing.
Anthony Briscoe, a member of the CASTO Reopening Committee and the director of transportation for Oxnard Unified School District, discussed student safety at the bus stop, while loading and unloading and when on board the school bus.
He said students and parents should maintain six feet of space while waiting at bus stops, and if needed districts should consider limiting the number of students assigned to select bus stops to reduce congestion. He advised communication to parents and students should be clear on wearing appropriate PPE.
Briscoe also advised that the communications coming from both the transportation and superintendent’s office need to consistent and cover all policies. School bus drivers should also be communicating with students regarding onboard expectations.
He also added that federal, state and local laws should be adhered to when loading and unloading students. The number of students should also be limited, and PPE should be utilized by students, drivers and aides. If districts choose to symptom-check students a plan should be created, and symptomatic students should be isolated if they are transported on the school bus.
Tony Peregrina, the CASTO president, discussed driver training during the webinar. He advised districts to create an organized and safe atmosphere as more resources will be needed including drivers as California continues to open.
Peregrina, who is also the transportation director at Woodland Joint Unified School district, said vehicles should be properly cleaned, sanitized and disinfected prior to use by trainees. He also recommended using the same vehicle when training to limit the amount of cleaning that needs to be done. As one cleans, he advised concentrating on all windows, roof vents, and any high-touch areas (both inside and outside of the bus).
He noted that if the school bus being used has air conditioning, all windows need to remain cracked open to allow air from the outside to filter through. He said drivers need to be trained on this procedure.
Other recommendations Peregrina gave when conducting training is to ensure proper PPE is being used and, if possible, all classes should be limited to one-on-one training between the instructor and trainee. But one-on-one training can be costly, so, he advised districts should at least ensure physical distancing is taking place. He noted virtual training is recommended as the least amount of face-to-face contact is best.
Tony Lavezzo, the CASTO Chapter 6 first vice president, said stock of PPE should be reviewed regularly to ensure the district doesn’t go low on supplies. He also advised referencing the EPA cleaning list to be sure the product being used is an approved substance.
Lavezzo, who is also the supervisor of fleet maintenance at Tahoe Truckee Unified School District and an STN 2020 Garage Star, added that having additional PPE on the school bus should be added as a part of district pre-trip inspections in case students forget a mask. Pre-trips should also include proper sanitizing and cleaning supplies.
Related: Comments Sought on Additional Smoking Ban on California School Buses
Related: California School Districts Prepare for Effects of Virtual Learning on Transportation
Related: California Approves Virtual Training for School Bus Driver Certifications
Related: School Buses Roll Smoothly in Arkansas School District During COVID-19
Related: Meal Deliveries Via the School Bus Continue Throughout Virtual Learning
With maintenance procedures, he advised having a policy in place for drivers to drop off vehicles with the district’s maintenance department and garage staff, with the least amount of face-to-face interaction as possible. He advised using electronic communication to park buses in certain spots and communicate with garage and maintenance staff when the bus is there.
At that point, the school bus driver would clean after themselves on the vehicle and the maintenance staff will proceed to fix the issue. The maintenance staff would then return the bus to the same parking spot once completed and also clean the bus while existing.
Lavezzo added that the pandemic does not override the safety of a California school bus. He said to be mindful of regulations before installing barriers and hand sanitizer stations on board.
A more comprehensive outline of CASTO’s transportation plan can be on its website.