A school bus driver for Forrestville Valley CUSD 221 in Illinois decided to spread holiday cheer by sprucing up the empty seat behind her.
COVID-19 social distancing guidelines require the district to keep the first row open. But Marsha Birkholz, a 12-year veteran school bus driver, told School Transportation News that she found a better use. Her favorite part of the job is the student she transports, she added, which is why she wanted to create some positivity in her school bus.
The district implemented several safety guidelines when it started its in-person education as scheduled on Aug. 17. Birkholz said she now drives surrounded by a plastic shield. Her students are assigned seats with siblings seated together, and at least the first seat directly behind her remains unoccupied. District Superintendent Sheri Smith added that at no point can more than 49 students plus the driver be on board a school bus at one time, per Illinois Department of Health guidelines.
All students and drivers have to wear masks at all times as well as undergo several health checks, one before they leave their house and another upon arriving to school.
“I wanted to bring joy and to also stress the safety of COVID-19,” Birkholz said, as she discussed what sparked her interest to decorate the seat behind her. “… It’s amazing how many of the students have made comments and have enjoyed it.”
In the two weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas break, the district holds themed days to keep students’ spirits up. Birkholz said that is when she was inspired to begin decorating the open bus seat. She shared that she aims to match the theme of the day to her decorated bus seat, but in some instances, she also comes up with her own ideas.
“The theme [earlier this week] was cinnamon rolls. Well, I wake up at 4:30 a.m. in the morning, so cinnamon rolls was not going to be my theme,” Birkholz said.
Instead, she used the song “Baby It’s Cold Outside” as a theme and placed a variety of snowmen on the seat.
Birkholz said her favorite theme so far has been the “Elf on the Shelf,” complete with masks and hand sanitizer, along with a sign stating, “Stay safe, stay healthy, wear your mask, wash your hands, and sanitize.”
She said because the bus is in motion, there are some challenges to keeping the decorations on the seats, but she uses the seatbelts and other creative strategies to ensure the items remain in place.
In addition to dressing up her bus, she also gets in the holiday spirit herself. On sock day, she wore her decorated Christmas socks on the outside of her pants, which she shared really connected the students.
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Smith said this behavior from Birkholz didn’t surprise her one bit. “She’s been [my] own children’s driver so, I’m not at all surprised that she would go out of her way to make the day just a little bit brighter for students,” Smith said.
She continued, “I think all of our staff here have realized that COVID-19, as great as it is to be in person and as happy as we are to have our students [back], we know that it’s very different, and the masks aren’t easy, staying six feet away from one another is not easy. I think Marsha has stepped right up to say, ‘Okay, how can I make this a little bit better for the kids that I have in the morning.’”
Not surprisingly, Smith acknowledged that not every student enjoys getting up and coming to school. However, she said, being able to see something different on the bus each day gives them something to look forward to. “Marsha is a wonderful lady, and we’re incredibly lucky to have her, but it certainly doesn’t surprise me at all that she will go the extra mile for her kids,” she said.
Birkholz said she loves seeing the student’s reactions to her decorations and enjoys daily conversations with them. “My big thing on my bus is respect. The school bus is a classroom on wheels,” Birkholz said. “We’re teaching students how to listen, how to behave, how to have respect for each other, themselves and people in authority.”
Smith concluded that in light of everything going on in regard to the coronavirus pandemic, she is grateful for all the school bus drivers who risk their safety to transport students to school. “They’ve been willing to step in and make sure that our kids get here safely and get home safely,” Smith said. “And so without [school bus drivers], obviously school can’t run. We are just incredibly fortunate here that we’ve been able to be open every day of the semester. And that is a big credit to our staff.”