California Gov. Gavin Newsom shocked many people including the state’s educational community when he commented that he wants to see students return to physical classrooms in July.
Newsom provided no details during his Tuesday press conference, but he noted that the catalyst for his comments has been the loss of learning by students as they’ve been moved to remote learning, and the strain put on parents as they oversee their children at home while balancing their own work.
The announcement was met with concern. California Teachers Association President E. Toby Boyd reiterated in an interview with NPR on Tuesday that public health and safety experts should drive any decision on when and how to reopen schools, and teachers and staff at over 1,000 public school districts must be a part of conversations.
California Department of Education Superintendent Tony Thurmond was more metered in his response, but he added in a statement that many more questions than answers exist on how to make the governor’s wish a reality.
“We all heard for the first time [Tuesday] the idea of schools reopening as early as July or August. If possible, this could help us address equity issues facing our most vulnerable students while providing an opportunity to start recovering the learning loss we know students have experienced between the time we closed campuses and shifted to distance learning,” he commented. “If this is going to work, there are some major questions we will have to answer. First and foremost: Can this be done in a way that protects the health and safety of our students, teachers, and school staff?”
That question certainly applies to student transporters and school busing.
Anna Borges, the state director of student transportation in CDE’s Office of School Transportation, said she and her staff are developing a host of recommendations that will be included in guidelines issued by CDE’s School Facilities and Transportation Services to school districts before the summer.
As Thurmond noted this week, returning to school early or otherwise reveals added fiscal complications in the post-coronavirus world. Just as physical distancing requirements may reduce class sizes, Borges said school bus passenger capacity will likely need to be reduced. She said conversations centering on how many students can fit on buses of different size configurations are taking place.
Borges pointed out that school districts must also rethink how students congregate at bus stops. And how should students be screened before they are allowed to board the bus? Whose responsibility is it to take students’ temperatures? What happens if a student is found to have a fever? Is the student left at the stop to fend for themselves?
She noted that, currently, districts are advised to have set procedures for returning students home if they forget their bus pass. The same would go for what to do after identifying a feverish or sick student.
The challenges for transporters expand from there. She said her office is contemplating the effect on school bus drivers and monitors who are required by state regulations to exit the bus to cross elementary and middle school students to and from bus stops. Staff is also exploring the feasibility and cost of erecting plexiglass barriers between the school bus driver compartment and the students. But with dozens of small and large buses on the market, how do school districts install them, she asked, not to mention complete work fleetwide in the next couple of months?
More realistically, she added, is the distribution and use of personal protective equipment such as masks and face shields to bus drivers and monitors.
Ultimately, she pointed out, local school districts will decide when and how they reopen. But student transporters hold the keys to how that will happen.
“This is shining a light on how essential transportation is because we have to get all these children to school,” she added.
Tony Peregrina, president of the California Association of School Transportation Officials, told School Transportation News that he and student transporters statewide are looking forward to receiving guidance from the CDE Office of School Transportation.
“Absent a vaccination, it is highly probable the school bus will look very different when our students return to school,” he added.
Related: Getting Student Transportation Departments Ready for Summer During COVID-19 Era
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Related: Student Transporters Tackle California’s New Bell Time Regulations
Borges added that a potential silver lining for school districts is that an unpopular new mandate on changing bell times to allow high school students to get more sleep at night will likely be delayed. It is supposed to go into effect on July 1, 2021.
In the meantime, Thurmond announced on Wednesday that he formed a statewide working group of collaborators charged with exploring what factors need to be considered before schools can safely re-open, and what must be accomplished to protect the health and safety of students, families, teachers, and classified staff.
The group includes Newsom’s office, superintendents from throughout California, the State Board of Education, the California Office of Emergency Services, the Department of Finance, California Health and Human Services, employee group leadership representing teachers and classified staff, and associations representing school administrators and business officials.
Additionally, Thurmond said he has invited state school chiefs from throughout the country to examine considerations and best practices for reopening schools, drawing from their experiences across the nation.
Editor’s note — An original version of this story insinuated that a new bell time regulation that requires middle and high schools to start no earlier than 8:30 a.m. was set to begin this summer.