The three national transportation associations are asking what life will be like after the coronavirus pandemic, and what it will mean for school bus operations.
However, more questions than answers resulted from a webinar on Tuesday, as the industry continues to navigate unchartered territory.
Curt Macysyn, executive director of the National School Transportation Association (NSTA), Charlie Hood, executive director of the National Association of State Directors of Pupil Transportation and Services (NASDPTS), and Mike Martin, executive director and CEO of the National Association of Pupil Transportation (NAPT), sat in on a virtual panel hosted by Transfinder, a logistic software company for school transportation.
Moderated by Rick D’Errico, director of public relations for Transfinder, the panelists attempted to answer questions they received from student transporters and vendors.
The panel discussed school bus cleaning best practices to alleviate the fears of parents and school bus drivers when transporting children again.
Best Practices for Cleaning School Buses
Martin said that because the COVID-19 situation is constantly evolving, there is no set best practice available. He said districts should adopt or evolve their own practices that adhere to the changing situations to meet their needs. He said there has never been a best practice discussion on how to clean a school bus, but maybe that should change.
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However, Hood noted that there is a two-step process including a cleaning product plus a disinfectant. He said that all OEM manufactures have guidance on their websites on how to clean the buses. He also added that the Environmental Protection Agency has a list of cleaners and disinfectors on their website that help fight the virus.
Hood explained that the information is out there, it’s just about looking for and following all the links. For example, included in the School Transportation News COVID-19 Resources for Student Transporters, Thomas Built Buses provides general cleaning and disinfecting guidelines, which discusses how to use personal protection and appropriate ventilation. Plus, Thomas Bus includes additional information to be aware of when cleaning and disinfecting surfaces, including how to be sure the cleaner or disinfectant is ready to use, or RTU.
The Thomas Built Bus COVID-19 Cleaning Instructions also includes a list of products that is recommended for cleaning the sidewalls of the school bus as well as different products that should be used to clean the seating surfaces.
For the future, Hood said there is an expectation of a higher cleaning standard that needs to be met before school buses return to service, or before drivers even get on the buses. He noted that the safety of the drivers and the students is the number one priority.
STN is currently surveying NASDPTS members on the various state responses to COVID-19 school closures. As of this writing, 50 percent of the 18 respondents at state departments of education said districts are using established procedures to sanitize and disinfect school buses. The STN survey also found that Massachusetts, Iowa and Missouri are encouraging districts to use extraordinary measures at this time to clean school buses. It was not clear at this writing exactly what those new procedures are.
Many transportation professionals also noted that the industry is experiencing a shortage of cleaning supplies, which makes it challenging to clean the buses on a regular basis. Macysyn noted that the NSTA has tried to develop points of contact to get those supplies to the people that need them.
Fears of Riding the Bus Again?
As the panelists discussed, when schools start back up, it’s not business as usual. They noted that parents could be scared to put their children back on a school bus, as well as the drivers who could be fearful of transporting students due to the potential exposure of COIVD-19.
Hood shared that the associations need to codevelop a best practice for the long-term impact of the coronavirus. He noted that for the first few months, drivers might need to wear full protective gear to keep themselves and their students safe.
Martin explained that superintendents are creating back-to-school tasks forces. He said they are working on the larger scheme of things, including student well-being, academics, staff support, finances, and a variety of other areas. He said transportation needs to be represented.
He noted that there is a real concern about students being close together and that continued social distancing guidelines might require schools to reduce the number of students in buildings at a given time or day. He said transportation departments would have a roll in that, as they could be transporting one group of students in the morning and another in the afternoon to adhere to accommodations.
Martin explained that like physical classrooms and the larger school buildings, the school bus was not designed for social distancing, which is why transportation needs to be accounted for in the task force meetings. While he said the associations need to work together, in the meantime transportation department can try and involve themselves in the school task forces to learn what is happening on the local and state level and how it impacts school busing.
The panelists noted that more bell time changes could result as the industry proceeds into uncharted territories.
Hood explained that the industry must continue to convince parents about school bus safety, in an effort to calm concerns. He said the industry looks at the yellow school bus as a beacon of safety, but many parents view it as a convenience.
Macysyn noted that as the industry moves forward, it needs to continue to be upfront and talk about how the school bus is 70 times safer than other vehicles. He noted that the industry is going to be figuring everything out together.
Impact on CDL & School Bus Certificates
Due to state departments of motor vehicles not being deemed essential businesses, school bus drivers will be unable to renew their certification, and no new school bus drivers can be hired on at this time.
Macysyn said that driver training schools are looking for flexibility at the federal level for some guidance. He said there are currently two options being discussed, DMV’s being deemed essential and opening up, or the opportunity of training to be administered by private providers.
Hood provided more feedback by citing a waiver from the FMCSA that delays expired or expiring CDLs until June 30, or whenever the federal national emergency is lifted.
However, Macysyn noted that school transportation is one very large piece of an overall puzzle. He said districts cannot rest their laurels on the FMCSA waiver. He added that districts must avoid the mentality of “kicking the can down the road.” He added that transportation departments can only push things back for so long until they are going to be forced to confront the issue.
Instead, he said operations need to be focused on maintaining continuity. He said he spoke to an attorney, who advised him that state law preempts federal. Macysysn recommended that states adopt their own waivers in addition to the FMCSA waiver.
The STN survey sent to NASDPTS members found that many states were in fact addressing requirements for school bus drivers to provide as little of an interruption as possible in their work once normal operations resume by offering waivers and extensions to certain transportation-related requirements. As of this writing, 10 states are providing an extension to commercial driver licenses and commercial learner’s permit qualifications, and 12 states are offering waivers for expiring licenses.
Other extensions being offered to districts from various states include criminal background checks, medical examiners certificates, random alcohol and drug testing, and required annual in-service training.
Will COVID-19 Cause a Larger School Bus Driver Shortage?
A question that has been on most people’s minds is how the school closures will affect school transportation operations, and will they result in a loss of school bus drivers, which in return will exponentially increase the already dire school bus driver shortage?
Martin said he doesn’t think so. He explained that he is optimistic because over 17 million people had filed for unemployment. He noted the industry needs to get in front of those people and show them the opportunities of stability and family atmospheres that are available within the student transportation community.
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Hood explained that the industry is very good at creatively getting things done. He said while an exacerbated driver shortage remains a real concern, he hopes it doesn’t come down to having to use the National Guard to drive, which has been done in the past during the mid-2000s when several hurricanes impacted local districts], and drivers needing to work double shifts, which could be anywhere from 8 to 12 hours a day.
While the webinar provided more questions than answers at this time, the three industry association leaders aggreged that more discussions on the anticipated challenges will be in the works.
The webinar was available to all NASDPTS, NAPT and NSTA members. This the fourth webinar, hosted by Transfinder in conjunction with the NAPT, in a series relating to the coronavirus pandemic. Transfinder has also provided a best practices page that is available on their website.