The U.S. Office of Heard Start shared best practices during a webinar attended by 1,650 people on Wednesday, with the goal of alleviating some of the concerns about once again transporting preschool students, especially those with disabilities.
Head Start regulations require that at least 10 percent of the infants, toddlers and preschool children served from low-income families have disabilities eligible for services included in the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. Russell Newbold, the transportation services manager for Community Council of Idaho, which operates Head Start programs in the state, discussed some best practices for agencies and school districts that provide transportation to these children.
However, he reiterated that these should only be considered best practices and not requirements. The information coming from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and states are only recommendations, he reminded. He also advised that each district or agency that provides transportation should develop plans and seek advice from medical experts and local state and health officials in their areas.
He said when transporting students on a Type-A small school bus, students coming into contact with the driver is almost inevitable, as there is little space for students to walk when boarding the bus and proceeding down the aisle to their seats. Because of that, he said drivers can wear face masks and shields, but they shouldn’t wear anything that obstructs their vision when driving.
He noted that the driver should already be on the bus when students board unless they must help a child who is in a wheelchair. In all other instances, he said having the driver outside when students are boarding is an unacceptable solution.
Another hot topic has centered on installing plexiglass or other barriers on school buses to separate the driver behind the wheel and the students. He explained that these materials haven’t been crash-tested, and districts considering these barriers should first confer with their school bus dealers and manufacturers on whether they can or should be installed.
He also said that younger students shouldn’t be using hand sanitizer without adult supervision. While hand sanitizing is a more feasible option than providing handwashing stations on buses, he suggested that other options could include providing baby wipes to students, as hand sanitizer could be dangerous if ingested.
However, Marco Beltran, a program specialist for special populations at the Office of Head Start, added that the risks of students not using hand sanitizer are far greater.
Newbold noted that another important aspect to consider is the feasibility of temperature-checking every staff member and student, every day and before every run. He said his team purchased no-contact thermometers that staff members use to check each other for COVID-19 symptoms. He said if that if an employee is suspected of being ill, they should be instantly sent home and school districts and Head Start agencies should modify their bus routes accordingly.
For temperature-checking students, however, Newbold said changes must first be made to the location of bus stops. He recommended that bus stops should no longer be located on city streets and instead should be moved to safer locations, like parking lots or parks, where permitted. He said there needs to be enough room for social distancing at the stops and adequate space for monitors to test the students before they board.
Newbold added that because temperature-checking students could take at least an additional 60 to 90 seconds per student, school buses can’t be stopped on the street blocking traffic that long. He said door-to-door services might not even be feasible, which could put additional responsibility on the parents accompany their children to and from safer pickup and dropoff locations.
Beltran advised that an effective screening tool is essential to maintaining health and safety in any operation. He advised officials to spend sufficient time researching the screening tool that would work best for them.
Newbold further discussed the importance of social distancing at bus stops and communicating new procedures with parents. He noted that with social distancing properly adhered to, a district shouldn’t need to suspend the entire route if only one student shows symptoms when their temperature is taken. Instead, that specific student can be removed.
But if social distancing is not adhered to, Newbold added that it will be up to local school districts and agencies if they want to continue to transport all the students on the route. Guidance regarding contact tracing of students or transportation staff after a COVID-19 diagnosis was not discussed during the webinar.
One way to accomplish social distancing is by working with city officials to affix properly spaced colored markings on sidewalks, similar to those used in grocery stores and other businesses. He advised assigning each marking to a student or family.
Chris Allen, assistant program director for the Community Council of Idaho, reminded listeners that just because a young child has a fever or displays other symptoms doesn’t mean they have COVID-19. Instead, a toddler could be teething, for example. He advised talking with the parents before routes begin to determine if the child might have other physical conditions before deciding they shouldn’t be transported.
Another option Newbold discussed is to keep students who are in the same class together on the same bus. That could minimize the risk of exposure to other children throughout the entire program.
Regardless, Newbold said there will need to be multiple bus runs to adhere to the social distancing guidelines. He said his operation is currently seating one child per bench, offset between the aisle and window, and loading from the rear of the bus to front, and unloading from the front to the rear. If students are from the same household, Newbold said they can be seated together.
Allen added that the children in rear-facing and forward-facing car seats, however, should always be seated at the front of the bus.
Following social distancing requirements and seating one student in each row of a 36-passenger Type A school bus would limit routes to 15 student riders, he noted, adding that no more than two students in forward-facing or rear-facing car seats should be transported at a time.
When loading the bus, Newbold advised that young children may not understand why they can’t sit with their friends, and the social isolation could cause anxiety. He said districts, agencies and bus drivers could engage students by placing stickers containing the child’s name on each seat or the bus floor to indicate where to sit. He added that any additional communication might help alleviate child stress levels.
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If a student needs to be seated in a child safety restraint system, Allen said that adhering to the six-foot distancing guidelines won’t be possible. He said using gloves is one solution when picking up a child, but Amanda Bryans, division director at the Office of Head Start, said there is controversy over gloves. She pointed out that a driver or monitor will likely touch multiple children and potentially spread germs to each one of them. She recommended using hand sanitizer between each child interaction.
However, Bryans noted that children shouldn’t get the feeling that adults are afraid of them. Instead, she said student transporters should still show the children they care for them but at the same time be more aware of proper hygiene and handwashing practices.
One thing that Beltran stressed was to not discipline or yell at students who aren’t socially distancing. Instead, he advised finding new ways to redirect their actions.
Allen noted that each day provides a learning moment, and what works one day might not work the next. He advised the webinar attendees to be flexible and adjust operations as new information is released.