Hutto Independent School District located 30 miles north of downtown Austin, Texas, realized early on that not all students were benefiting from virtually learning during COVID-19 closures. To combat this, the district brought the education to students via a yellow school bus.
Hutto ISD, which is currently open for in-person education, still has about 40 percent of its students opting for virtual classrooms. Some of these students and their parents had to choose virtual learning because medical conditions or compromised immune systems put them at higher risk of becoming ill from the coronavirus.
“They’re not doing the best that they can do on the virtual platform because it’s not the best platform for everybody,” Dr. Stacie Koerth, special education director at Hutto ISD, told School Transportation News.
Koerth said her department sent a letter to teachers asking which students are struggling the most in virtual platforms. When they received the names back, Koerth said she asked the transportation department for help.
The transportation department at Hutto ISD supplied a school bus and school bus driver during the day so the district could better reach these students. “We have a bus that goes and sits outside [students’] houses and the kids get on and learn for about an hour, one-to-one with a certified teacher. Then they get back in and we head to the next house.”
The program which started on Aug. 24, continues to serve 12 students Monday through Thursday from 9 a.m. to noon. However, on Nov. 1, the district will begin serving 24 students from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m., with a single teacher, rather than using several different coordinators who meet individually with the students.
The Concept of the ‘Magic School Bus’
A school bus driven by Daniel Martinez arrives at each student’s house with a teacher on board. Martinez parks outside and idles, to ensure proper air conditioning and ventilation. The teacher onboard has all the materials needed for the student that day.
David Uecker, the district’s director of transportation, clarified that there are no laws or regulations regarding the length of idle times in Texas for any organizations that have not signed a Memorandum of Agreement with the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality. He said Hutto ISD has a policy of five-minute idle times when sitting without students on the bus.
“As the temperature becomes cooler in Texas, we may not need the air conditioner running and should be able to turn the bus off during the fall season,” Uecker said.
Meanwhile, additional procedures are in place to ensure safety between the teachers and students.
“Everybody wears their mask while they’re on the bus, and they do a lesson for about an hour or so, and the kiddo heads back inside while the bus driver sanitizes the area where the child was,” Koerth said.
Martinez explained the bus is sanitized using an electrostatic wand system that allows him to disinfect the bus between each student session.
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The transportation department also covers all the costs associated with paying the school bus driver and operating the school bus. No retrofitting was required as a card table is placed where a wheelchair would be secured, and chairs are strapped in using seatbelts.
Koerth added that another advantage is all learning equipment is comprised of metal, so magnetic letters can be used. “It has been 100 percent positive, everybody really likes it,” Koerth said.
“They get that one-on-one help with what they’re struggling with, they just really look forward to working with somebody outside of their house for a change,” Koerth continued. “Basically, it is bringing school to the students. And they really enjoy having that person there and working with them. We’re able to close those achievement gaps that COVID-19 has created by working on their Individualized Education Program goals.”
She noted districts are able to think outside the box during these challenging times and meeting the needs of specialized students and their parents have been a priority for Hutto ISD.
“I feel honored to work for a district that offers this opportunity to their students,” Martinez added. “I have two special needs grandchildren and see the value of such a program. It must be expensive, but the district is really going above and beyond to reach their students.”