In addition to knowing where the school bus and their child is at all times, parents also want to know cleaning procedures and if proper COVID-19 safety precautions are being taken on board the vehicle.
Mark McKinney, director of transportation at Santa Fe ISD in southeast Texas, said some parents have expressed concern to his department about their needs and wishes on the school bus, prior to sending their children back to in-person learning. He noted that Santa Fe has been in a hybrid model of education since Aug. 24, but slowly more students and their parents are opting to return to class in school buildings. Now, he said 85 percent of the student population is in-person.
McKinney said parents have fears about social distancing, sanitizing, notifications of riders who test positive, and the district’s contact tracing plan. He added that he believes the fear comes from “apprehension of the unknown from a virus they can’t see or predict with any certainty.”
In a “normal” school year, Santa Fe transports around 1,700 students, but ridership during COVID-19 is down 20 percent. Yet McKinney added that as students return to in-person learning, they are also starting to ride the school bus.
Several other transportation directors relayed increased parent expectations amid COVID-19. In fact, a recent School Transportation News reader survey sent in December indicates that more than half of the 49 respondents claimed parent expectations of transportation services have increased due to the pandemic.
While most directors shared they have increased cleaning and disinfecting to help alleviate the fears, a large part of making parents feel comfortable is communicating the information and being confident in your efforts to migrate the virus.
Henry Brown, transportation manager at Fort Bend ISD in Texas, said via the survey that his team of 300 drivers is working hard to assure the community, “that everything possible is being done, sanitization wise, for the safety of our students.”
Santa Fe’s McKinney added his district sanitizes school buses after each run, which amounts to four times a day, and travels as much as possible with the windows down.
Contact tracing and notifying parents when a student on the bus tests positive for COVID-19 is also another piece of the puzzle. McKinney noted that while contact tracing is extra work, he is able to provide schools the needed information easily. He added that they also send push notifications out at the appropriate level to employees and parents of the students involved.
He said a general notification is also sent if the student was on the bus but not within quarantine distance to the infected child. If a child did test positive and rode the school bus, the bus is double sanitized and then placed out of service until the following day.
Santa Fe ISD also leaves the seat behind the driver empty. That way, the driver is protected if a student tests positive, and the district doesn’t lose any employees for upwards of two weeks. “Also, this prevents a driver who comes down with COVID-19 from being within quarantine distance of any student,” McKinney added.
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Meanwhile, Deon Birkes, transportation director for Lincoln Consolidated School District in Arkansas, said his department’s protocols are encouraging to parents.
Birkes said, in addition to mask mandates and hand sanitizer stations on board, staff have increased cleaning and are sitting siblings together. He added that the district did encourage parents to bring their students to school, if possible, so the ridership is down.
However, he noted that despite an uptick of cases in Arkansas, he is noticing that more parents are sending their kids back to school and back on the school bus.
“I don’t want to say they are getting comfortable [with the virus] but parents are getting comfortable with what we are doing to keep their kids safe. It’s kind of that new thing, nobody really trusts anybody until they know for sure what’s going on,” Birkes said.