As summer approaches, directors have their end-of-school routines in place. Normally, they transport their last group of students and then send their bus drivers off for the summer months to enjoy vacations and personal time off. Others prepare to drive summer school routes. However, this year is not normal.
Summer started earlier than expected for many drivers and it won’t be as relaxing as everyone had hoped.
Greg Jackson, executive director of transportation and fleet services at Jeffco Public Schools near Denver, said he usually starts planning for the next school year around Memorial Day. He said within that two-month span before school starts up again, his routers are able to put all the transportation puzzle pieces back together.
They are able to identify who’s graduating, what the incoming student enrollment looks like, and students with special needs who have school busing included in their individualized education program. Then, they embark on arranging the pieces where they need to go. He noted that routing for the new Jeffco school year isn’t as daunting as one would expect.
However, planning for this upcoming school year is an entirely different puzzle, and many of the pieces don’t fit like before. Jackson said his staff is forced to reinvent the wheel, as they require a brand-new way of thinking and planning for what transportation will be after the coronavirus pandemic. He calls it the new normal.
He noted that this year he might have four months to plan the return to school, if students actually head back to physical classrooms, rather than continue online remote learning. The past month, he added, has been spent planning for various possibilities around school startup and calculating the costs of providing service, including the implementation of centralized hubs to bus students to the campus, ensuring physical distancing at bus stops and onboard buses, scanning student temperatures to allow them access, and purchasing enough new school buses to meet the demand.
A silver lining to not transporting any students over the past two months has meant he’s gotten a head start on this planning. The wildcards are not yet knowing the new school year start date, guidance from the state department of education and public health officials, and what students his team must transport.
Plus, he said there is the potential that schools would start in August for the 2020-2021 school year in Colorado, instead of July to give schools a little extra time.
Colorado Gov. Jared Polis did advise all school districts to prepare for the possibility of continuing an online distance learning model for all students. With nothing set in stone at this time, all districts have is planning for the “what if’s.”
Jackson shared that his district is indeed considering the continuation of remote learning. However, he said there are too many vulnerable student populations that need access to the classroom and the school’s resources. Some of those groups include students with special needs, students who are homeless and in foster care, and low-income students who rely on Title I programs. Then, there are students with parents who are frontline workers or first responders, who can’t be home watching them during the day.
“We have a lot of high-impact students, that need to have that physical connection to the building, and that is going to be our special education students,” Jackson explained. “A lot of their parents have been communicating a lot about missing out on the resources that their students should be receiving. Also talking about the students who receive day treatments, they are at home and they are not getting those.”
He noted that in addition to the special education students, 46 percent of Jeffco students are eligible for free and reduced-cost lunch. He noted that a lot of students in the district’s mountainous areas need those school resources. Because of those factors, Jeffco is looking at different scenarios to get students back in school in the fall, but also to adhere to social distancing guidelines and other safety precautions.
Jeffco is considering many possibilities for the future of in-person learning, including having certain grade levels go to school buildings on different days. This model would give students five days of in-person learning across a two-week span. However, these options could provide additional stress and reliance on transportation services.
Jackson noted that splitting up school days into shifts could make for an eight- to 12-hour day for transportation employees, especially when social distancing limits a 77-passenger bus to 11 students, as Jackson’s team calculated.
Lisa Casey, director of transportation for Summit School District in Colorado, has made similar findings. Her district has 78-passenger buses, and she determined that with social distancing guidelines in place the vehicles would only be able to transport 13 students at a time.
However, these numbers could be altered, depending on if siblings or those who were quarantined together are riding the bus. They would naturally be allowed to sit closer together, she added.
Casey said her district is looking at different ways to accomplish this “new normal.” She shared that her office wall is full of papers with ideas written on them that are crossed out because more information becomes available that makes the scenario impossible. She said Summit School District is looking at the same approaches as Jeffco and is leaning towards a hybrid model of education.
The 3,200-student school located 70 miles west of Denver, employs 27 transportation employees. She noted that her district is looking at several precautions for the safety of students and school bus drivers.
One of those precautions is having school bus drivers check each child’s temperature before they get on the bus, noting that boarding students would take longer than normal. She said her district has already ordered these devices and is putting procedures in place for how to use them.
Casey noted that because the device is a forehead scanner that doesn’t actually touch the students’ skin, the drivers would likely not need to disinfect the equipment afterward. She said her first-choice scenario is erecting a clear plastic shower curtain in between the driver compartment and the students.
She said her staff is looking for a plastic material that is thin enough to still allow for the forehead scanner to properly generate temperature readings. This way, bus drivers are fully protected while they perform their jobs. She said if that doesn’t work, her staff is also looking at installing plexiglass at the driver’s compartment. But this would require school bus drivers to leave their seats while they scan the students onto the bus.
Meanwhile, Jackson said he doesn’t believe Jeffco can put up plexiglass, due to the stability of the partition and the time it would take to install them across his fleet of 415 buses. Plus, school bus drivers need to quickly access their students. However, he noted he is also considering mandatory usage of personal protective equipment (PPE) by all drivers and monitors.
“For example, our assistants need to have a faceguard, seeing that they may have a student in a wheelchair who is a spitter, who may want to throw something, or sneeze, things like that,” Jackson commented. “So, as they are tying down a wheelchair, we need to give those guys a little extra precaution.”
Casey also noted that not only will her entire staff be equipped with cloth masks and gloves, but the district is providing them for all student riders as well. Wearing them will be a requirement to ride the bus.
However, both directors questioned what the social distancing guidelines would mean for the number of buses in their fleet and staff on hand. Jackson noted that 35 percent of his workforce is at least 65 years old, which puts them at higher risk for contracting coronavirus and suffering more severe symptoms. He said he is surveying his drivers to determine who is planning on returning in the fall. He said that losing those drivers would make a detrimental impact on his operations.
“The reality of it is, are we going to lose drivers?” Jackson questioned. “We are already 40 drivers short, so 35 percent of my workplace would be a huge impact. But part of it is recommendations that I brought up the ladder [to the district administration]. Do we do the ‘California plan’ and transport special education students only?”
Jackson said he is looking at only transporting high-impacted students to help support that group of people as well as his drivers and staff. He said he sent a letter of intent to all parents of student riders, asking if they will be putting their children on the school bus next school year. This, he said, will give him a better understanding of how many students he will be expected to transport.
Casey explained that she just ordered two smaller buses to help with the COVID-19 demand and to meet social distancing guidelines. She said the district chose the smaller buses because they can get into smaller areas and pick up a limited number of students, and she could use drivers who don’t need a commercial driver’s license.
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However, as school districts start planning for the new school year, budget concerns remain a huge challenge. For instance, Jackson said he already had to cut 5 percent of his budget and said he might have to cut another 5 percent.
He also noted that the cancellation of field and activity trips will reduce revenue the department would have received, and school bus drivers are only receiving their guaranteed bid hours versus the extra hours a day that they work on field or activity trips.
“That is an effect on my revenue budget and the challenges on my goals that I have,” Jackson explained. “So, If I don’t have field trips and I don’t have athletics, things like that, that I am transporting, then they have to look at my budget in a different way, and not hold against me revenue challenges and goals that I have to reach now. Because if I can’t do field trips, I can’t do anything [about it.]”
Disinfecting the School Bus
Another large conversation is on the proper way to disinfect school buses and how to keep them clean with children constantly riding on them. Both Casey and Jackson discussed their best practices and how they will clean the bus going forward.
Casey said her district ordered Clorox wipes as well as disinfecting spray “bombs” that fully engulf the buses. She said the buses will be disinfected every night during the new school year, which should help keep drivers and students clear of the virus.
“The one thing that we did say was if anybody does come back positive [with COVID-19], we will close transportation,” Casey said. “So, it’s one of those things, that they are very diligent about, but they [also] want to keep everybody employed.”
Jackson noted that his district purchased a mist machine that is designed to kill the virus. He said he is also planning on providing school bus drivers with spray bottles that contain the mist, and they will be required to use it to wipe their buses down after every route. He noted that school buses wouldn’t be as full, and drivers would only be required to wipe down the areas that the students are sitting, that are identified as the seats.
“Before you go and pick up that next kid, you pull over to the side, and do your quick spray and wipe and pick up the next group,” Jackson said. “What we also have to do is identify those seats with markers, these are the seats that students can sit at.”
Going forward, Jackson said this is a great time to lean on other districts and companies for support. He said that could consist of sharing work with neighboring districts and crossing over borders and routes, especially for foster care kids and homeless students. But he also noted that districts should consider contracting with alternative transportation companies.
“I just tell people, hang in there, but again this is where you really tap into each other and work with each other, partner with each other,” Jackson said. “Don’t just be separate entities, be on the same page with each other to try and get this done.”