Safely transporting students with special needs and disabilities during a normal school year is hard enough. Successfully doing so during a pandemic requires school bus drivers and monitors to excel at everything they’ve done in the past and then some.
Board-certified behavior analyst Patrick Mulick, who is also a frequent speaker at the TSD Conference and STN EXPO, addressed this need during an Aug. 12 webinar on re-engaging students with special needs as they make their way back to school.
Mulick said that while many people have reacted to the pandemic with various levels of fear, students with disabilities are often ill-equipped to deal with change. He noted that anxiety is also the main emotion experienced by children who have autism because of the unpredictable nature of simply walking out their front door.
He noted that the normal reassuring to students that things will get eventually back to normal doesn’t work as well with the current health crisis, as there is not a clear end in sight. But school bus drivers could model continuity and hope for their students through the impressions they make when students return to the bus, whenever that is. Mulick said they can also show empathy for what these students have gone through while schools have been closed.
Student Transportation: The First Responders of Public Education
Mulick said “impossible” is canceled. He called on the industry to focus on innovative solutions. He recommended focusing on the three “Rs” of relationships, routines and reinforcement.
Building relationships right now is paramount, added Mulick, and anyone who works with students has the capacity to serve as a positive influence. He said school closures have inserted the equivalent of two summers between now and the last many school bus drivers last saw their students, so remaining publicly positive, at least, will be crucial once school bus runs startup again.
Mulick noted that despite one’s personal anxiety about the many COVID-19 restrictions that have been placed on society, reestablishing a positive relationship with the students will help them feel comfortable. He explained that children pick up on the emotions around them. Instead of being negative and scared, take responsibility and be willing and ready, he advised.
Creating a routine, meanwhile, is a matter of safety, Mulick said. And the routine heading into the new school year is going to be completely different — mask-wearing, social distancing, temperature checking, assigned seating, and constant hand sanitizer use — than students and drivers are used to.
Mulick explained that relatively few people in the U.S. were used to adults wearing masks in public before the pandemic, with such fashion usually relegated to villains and superheroes on television or in the movies. He said that a student with a disability might be fixated on or triggered by the use of a mask.
The new reality is that wearing masks can be distracting from a student’s perspective, as they make conversations more difficult. They can also be unsafe for children who are nonverbal, unable to adjust the coverings or have respiratory conditions.
He also noted students may refuse or otherwise be unable to wear a mask because of their sensory issues. He said the industry as a whole needs to be aware that some students won’t tolerate the mask. That doesn’t mean student transporters can’t get creative.
Mulick said there needs to be collaboration on how to make masks work. He also advised providing some students with mask breaks at school, as some students might not be able to wear them for a long period of time. He advised taking students outside and creating distance between them so they can remove their masks for a few minutes.
Mulick explained that social distancing could be easier to model for students than to explain. For example, he said the school bus driver can show students how to hold their arms perpendicular from their bodies to create space between themselves and another student. If the tips of their fingers touch, they are too close. This, he said, will help students wrap their minds around the concept.
The same could be useful when students wait at a bus stop. He said student transporters can encourage boundaries and draw circles on the sidewalk, for example, to indicate to students where they should stand and wait.
He also advised drivers to be careful with tape when bus marking seats, as some students with disabilities have obsessive-compulsive disorders and tend to tear. He also suggested using nametags or photos of students when assigning seats.
When temperature checking students, he recommended that staff show how the digital thermometer works beforehand, even self-demonstrating.
Related: District Support of Parental eLearning Development Vital for Students with Disabilities
Related: Rethinking School Startup for Students with Special Needs
Related: School Bus Driver Training Focuses on Empathy for Students with Disabilities
Related: TSD Keynote Speaker Addresses Important Link Between Special Education, Transportation
Related: TSD Attendees Get to the Heart of Service for Children with Disabilities
Mulick warned that some students might not understand the importance of using hand sanitizer, as the virus is invisible. The gel or liquid may also smell or burn a scratch or cut on a student’s finger or hand. Bus drivers should try their best to make the experience of hand sanitizer a good one.
Mulick advised reinforcing the use of hand sanitizer by creating the expectation that the student will use it every time they board the bus. He explained all educators should continuously tell students how well they are doing, and how excited they are to see them again.
A key takeaway was that there is neither an easy button for student transporters nor one-size-fits-all answers to transportation challenges. He advised having individual conversations and collaboration regarding each student and transporting them to school.