The fast-spreading and ongoing challenges of the coronavirus continue to create ripples of reevaluation and reflection across the student transportation industry.
At the beginning of March, STN posted a web poll asking if school districts were taking extraordinary measures to disinfect school buses during the coronavirus outbreak. At the start of the month, results were sparse. “No” was the overwhelmingly most popular choice.
However, following the NBA suspension of its season on March 11, due to a Utah Jazz player testing positive for COVID-19, a snowball effect began. Since then practically all professional, collegiate and high school sports have delayed or stopped their seasons.
President Donald Trump announced a national state of emergency on Friday, March 13 and by that following Monday recommended the cancellation of any public gatherings consisting of 10 or more people for at least the next two weeks.
When STN concluded its web poll on March 17, the responses had shifted exponentially. Now, 71 percent of 282 respondents said they are taking extraordinary measures to disinfect school buses.
Meanwhile, the shutdowns continued. Cities around the nation have closed restaurants to patron dining, though many are offering delivery or pick-up. Fitness clubs, bars and anywhere else that attracts large numbers of people have also closed their doors. San Francisco also announced a city-wide shut down, forcing people to shelter in place at home for the next two weeks, and allowing only essential travel to grocery stores or banks. More cities and counties have followed.
But the cancellations don’t stop there. Events are being postponed around the nation with the CDC announcing on March 15 that all gatherings should be kept to under 50 people for the next 8 weeks.
School districts are also following suit. According to Education Week, as of this writing 39 states had closed all public K-12 schools, leaving 41.7 million students at home, for some period of time.
With information changing by the day, almost it appears by the hour, many are wondering what this means for their job as a school bus driver or a monitor in the transportation department. STN created a new poll, which will be up for the remainder of the month on the fate of school bus driver wages.
The National School Transportation Association sent letters to the governors of all 50 sates and to the U.S Education Secretary Betsy Devos at the start of this week, asking for a mandate, requiring school districts to fund transportation programs despite school closures.
School bus contractor First Student also encourages school districts to continue to pay for all regularly scheduled services during this closure.
“We want to ensure our bus transportation service resumes fully [functional] when school is back in session,” Claire Miller, the senior vice president of strategy, business development, marketing and communications for First Student, told School Transportation News. “In practical terms, most of our employees will have no income during the closures, putting a burden on their families during a critical time.”
Miller explained that with competition for qualified CDL drivers, an employee loss could occur during this time of uncertainty. She added that it is important for school districts to pay for all regularly scheduled services during this closure.
“This is required to permit our company to pay our employees for the time they are not able to work, while also covering the other expenses we continue to incur,” Miller said. “We believe providing our valued employees with security and stability during this difficult time is the right thing to do and provides long term benefit by preserving valuable professional drivers that you know and trust.”
Multiple First Student locations are supporting their district partners by helping to deliver meals or instructional materials, which is something many school bus drivers are doing around the nation.
“Our drivers take great pride in serving their communities, and we are proud to use our resources to continue to care for students during this unprecedented time,” Jen Biddinger, corporate communications manager for First Student, said.
Meanwhile, 268 school bus drivers plus 42 additional CDL holders, including mechanics, office and managerial staff at Evergreen Public Schools in Washington state, located on the border with Oregon, came together in 32-degree weather on Tuesday to provide 8,000 lunches and breakfasts to the dozens of students left without meals when the schools suddenly closed down.
The district did its first run and delivered the equivalent of 16,000 meals, 8,000 breakfasts and 8,000 lunches to students simultaneously on Tuesday morning. Gail Spolar, executive director of communications and community engagement for the district, said staff ran all of their elementary routes. Students were asked to meet the drivers at the elementary school bus stop located nearest their homes at normal morning pick-up time.
“Our drivers were very excited to come in and drive their normal routes and do something positive for the kids that they interreact with on a daily bias,” Spolar said. “We have about just under 50 percent free and reduced lunch rate, so they also knew what a hardship it was for families and students not being in school and receiving meals.”
Spolar said the district plans to do this while the schools are closed, right now until April 24 as ordered by Gov. Jay Inslee, however, district officials are monitoring the situation and the need of the meals.
“We are going to evaluate it day by day,” Spolar explained. “Making sure that there is still the need and students are still coming out. We will be monitoring our meal usage and any guidance or direction by public health. And just again, being cautious at the same time that we are really wanting to ensure our students aren’t suffering due to the school closure and getting food.”
To make the deliveries as safe as possible, Spolar said drivers are handing the meals to the students, the students are not getting on the school bus. The school bus drivers are wearing gloves and social distancing is being observed at all stops. They are trying to make sure that students are not bunched together but instead are spread out while waiting.
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Schools in Ohio were reportedly among the first in six states to close its doors. When STN spoke with Transportation Supervisor Greg Hovan of North Royalton City Schools on Monday, he said his drivers were operating on an on-call basis.
They are not being asked to report to work, but they are still paid during this time with the understanding that they are available if needed, for an emergency delivery or evacuation, Hovan explained.
“They are available during this time, but for the most part, we want to protect their health and the health of their families,” Hovan said. “A lot of our folks are in that at-risk group due to age, so we want to make sure that they are protected and safe and able to return to work once we start back up.”
He added its huge to be able to continue to pay his drivers during this time. “We have a lot of great folks here, and I wouldn’t want to lose them over something like this,” Hovan said. “As hard as it is for us to find drivers, I want to keep who we have, we have a great group here and I want to keep things going with that.”
Hovan said North Royalton City Schools is closed to students until the end of the business day on April 3. While, no one is scheduled to report to school this week, for the remaining two weeks of the closure mechanics and office staff at the transportation department will be working on a limited day, along with other school officials.