As many schools across the Golden State prepare for online education in the fall, transportation directors weigh the available options and make tough calls regarding transportation services.
On July 17, Gov. Gavin Newsom announced that schools in 32 counties across the state could only open for all-virtual classes because of rampant COVID-19 cases. Since his announcement, an additional five counties have been added to the state’s watch list.
Counties must be off the watch list for at least 14 consecutive days before local school districts can consider reopening in-person classes. However, with reopening comes very strict guidelines that must be followed.
The most prominent county on the watch list is Los Angeles County, which houses the second-largest school district in the nation. Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) announced it would not be going back to in-person education in the fall, prior to Newsom’s order. Instead, the district opted for all-virtual learning starting on Aug. 18.
The decision came after 83 percent of California’s Teachers Association (CTA) members opposed returning to in-person learning. The union has been very vocal in its stance to not return to in-person learning, despite recommendations from the National Academies and the American Academy of Pediatrics that stated children need in-person education.
The CTA said in a July 8 letter to Newsom, Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon, Senate Pro Tem Toni Atkins and Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond that because of a surge in infection rates around the state and the reclosure of indoor activities, school districts and community leaders should take preventative action to protect to students and educators.
“Simply said, California cannot reopen schools unless they are safe,” the CTA stated. The letter goes on to discuss the lack of resources, funding and capacity school districts have to implement the “most basic prevention measures of six feet physical distancing and limiting contacts, much less the other important preventative actions such as personal protective equipment (PPE), testing and tracing, or adequate ventilation and cleaning supplies.”
LAUSD Superintendent Austin Beutner said during a press conference on July 13 that the health and safety of the school community is not something that can be compromised. Beutner noted that while there are needs for different health practices in schools to prevent the virus, he doesn’t believe these are enough to safely reopen schools.
He noted that opening schools will increase the interactions between children and adults from different families. “There’s a public health imperative to keep schools from becoming a petri dish,” he stated.
School Transportation News followed up with LAUSD on the impact online learning will have on transportation operations. However, communication personnel said they were unable to share additional information at this writing.
Meanwhile, the neighboring Santa Monica-Malibu School District is preparing for all the scenarios, said Director of Transportation Neal Abramson. The district will also start virtually on Aug. 20, as it’s located within Los Angeles County.
Abramson said that because the state legislature reached an agreement on the 2020-2021 budget to preserve spending for K-12 schools, none of his staff will lose their jobs or be furloughed. The budget provides language that prevents the layoffs of teachers and many other school employees, including bus drivers, custodians and nutrition workers.
Abramson said most of his drivers will be working from home during school closures, but they will essentially remain on-call and will continue to be paid their regular wages. He noted that if staff members don’t reply to district phone calls or texts within a certain amount of time, or otherwise prove to not be available, they will have to use vacation or sick time to make up missed hours.
Abramson noted that he’s expecting his staff to still help out when needed, and he’s going to start bringing them in a couple of people at a time to wash and wax the buses. He said by keeping drivers on-call, he can utilize them to transport students with special needs as required by their Individualized Education Program or potentially use them to lease out a wheelchair van for local residents to go grocery shopping, for example. He noted that because of canceled field or athletic trips, he won’t have to worry about paying drivers overtime.
He also noted that all in-service training will be done virtually, and his weekly video meetings with staff will continue.
“I was starting to do the Zoom meetings back in May, just to reconnect with everybody and have everybody be able to see everybody and see their coworkers, you know, even though you may not be friends with them on the outside just being able to see your coworkers and chat with them is a lot of fun,” Abramson said. “And we’re actually working on a wellness program right now to incorporate not only for staff but for students and parents as well.”
He said the wellness program is made available through Headspace.com, which according to its website is a platform to help improve mental health during the pandemic. And while the program normally charges for the service, it’s being offered for free to educators. He said he’s going to startup exercise training sessions as drivers come back.
Abramson noted that prior to the governor’s edict, his district was preparing for a hybrid model of education. A group of students would go in on Monday and Tuesday, while another group would go Wednesday and Thursday, with all students off on Friday. He said with this hybrid model, his district has opted to not provide transportation to regular general education students.
He noted that based on the California Department of Education guidance, the district will only be able to transport 14 students per 78-passenger bus. However, he said that with even half the kids in school at one time, based on his school district’s geography, he wouldn’t be able to do two routes, even with staggered bell times, due to the 20- to 30-mile turnaround time it would take between stops.
“In a perfect world, all the kids would ride buses to and from school. No one would be allowed to drive themselves or be in a parent’s car, as we all know the safest form of transportation is a school bus, with a California certified school bus driver,” Abramson said. “But that’s a perfect world. We don’t live in a perfect world.”
He said advising upper management to not offer general education transportation for the time being was hard for him. But right now, he said, the district needs to concentrate on special education students, homeless students, and students in foster care, as the state and federal law mandate the transportation of those populations.
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Oxnard School District, on the other hand, contracts out most of its transportation services. Only 12 drivers are on staff. The district, located in Ventura County, is scheduled to start virtual learning on Aug. 19.
Anthony Briscoe, director of transportation for the district, said one student is currently being transported to a reading program, and he anticipates they will continue to transport that student when school starts.
Briscoe said when schools closed in March, OSD continued to pay both its school bus drivers on staff and their contract with Durham School Services. He said they had the drivers come in from time to time to do cleaning on the vehicles and some office work. Biscoe said the district is waiting to see what happens when school starts, but they might have to back and renegotiate whether or not they will be able to continue doing that.
However, he noted that when schools are allowed to open, the district is leaving it up to the parents to choose a hybrid learning or fully remote model. He noted that the district was in conversations before schools were ordered to go remote on whether they would continue to provide general education transportation, as seating capacity is limited with social distancing guidelines. That decision hasn’t been finalized at this time.
He noted that the district normally transports 3, 200 students across 67 routes, but this school year they only have 527 seats available, 427 of which are taken for students with special needs, foster youth and homeless students.