As confirmed novel coronavirus cases in the country near 4 million, spurred by rising rates in the south and west, New York issued school transportation guidelines amid lowered rates of infection due to stay-at-home orders, mandatory face coverings, and quarantine policies for residents visiting from other states.
In May, Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced that he would work with Microsoft founder Bill Gates to “reimagine education” with technology at the forefront. The resulting Reimagine Education Advisory Council is preparing New York’s schools and colleges to adopt technology and other innovations to help safely reopen. The Reimagine Task Force has been meeting all summer to discuss what reopening schools should entail. Cuomo also stressed safety with regard to reopening schools, stating on July 13 that he won’t use school children as “guinea pigs,” while also questioning why school buildings still exist.
The phased approach to getting New York businesses back up and running also applies to schools. Cuomo’s regional reopening plan allows only schools in phase four to be eligible to hold in-person classes this fall. To reopen school buildings, the region must maintain a daily infection rate below 5 percent, using a 14-day average. Schools will have to reclose if the regional infection rate rises above 9 percent, using a 7-day average.
New York City, the former epicenter of the pandemic in the Empire State, is the only region still in phase three. On June 8, according to Chalkbeat, a non-profit news organization covering education, key reopening details of the Big Apple’s schools remain scarce, although city officials did confirm that New York City students will only attend school one to three days a week, with the exact number rotating weekly based on student enrollment and building capacity.
New York’s Department of Education issued guidelines for student transportation on July 16, including recommendations that each district should perform regular school bus disinfection measures and train staff regarding social distancing on the bus, at stops, and during loading and unloading. Districts will continue to provide transportation to students with disabilities as well as those who are homeless and in foster care. Transportation will also continue to be offered to students who attend religious, independent or charter schools.
With social distancing in place and a requirement that students wear masks, school busing is one of the biggest challenges for both urban and rural schools.
For districts such as Owego-Apalachin Central School District in rural Tioga County, which is in phase four, big changes are being planned, especially with routing.
“That’s the caveat that is going to hold everyone up with routing. We had our fingers crossed that we could put one student per seat,” commented Director of Transportation Anthony Quaranta. “I was hoping that the high-back seats would be considered a type of sneeze guard, so we could have 23 kids on a bus instead of 11. For 20-years, we’ve been cutting budgets by eliminating routes and filling the bus seats. Now, we’re supposed to do the polar opposite.”
He also noted that the state is requiring three reopening plans from each district. One is for everyone returning to school, another is for remote learning and the third is for a hybrid plan where some students come to school for either half-days or certain days of the week.
In upcoming meetings, Quaranta said he will hash out the details with principals. School districts must have their plans typed up and sent to Albany by July 31.
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Owego-Apalachin has about 2,000 students and covers 100 square miles of hills and river valley. “I just don’t see how every child coming back to school every day would ever work with 11 students to a bus,” said Quaranta. “Maybe we’ll have to have six-tiers instead of two. I just don’t know yet.”
“One thing coming out of this pandemic situation is that the bus is no longer going to jokingly be referred to as a rolling petri-dish anymore,” Quaranta pointed out. “We’ve learned so much about disinfecting. There was a news segment recently about random sampling on the subway cars, which are disinfected every day. Not a single sample of coronavirus was found. That proves that daily disinfecting is working, so I’m disappointed that we can only have 11 kids to a bus. The cleaning procedures alone would make the buses safe.”
Communication with parents so there is accurate data on which students will be riding is going to be more important now than ever. “We’ve always routed for 50 to 60 kids [per bus], and about 40 actually show up,” Quaranta explained. “Those days are gone. What do we do if kid number 12 is standing out there and the parents have left for work? I also think that more parents are going to drive their kids to school, and that’s another issue with the congestion that will create [at school campuses].”
Quaranta shared that he is “fairly certain” his all of his drivers and mechanics will return to work by the start of school.
“I haven’t had one single applicant since the pandemic began,” he added. “I’ve kept in touch with my staff [via] Zoom, but our in-person training in August will have to be held at the high school in the room designated for large group instruction to provide social distancing.”
As far as cleaning goes, Quaranta said he is confident that his district is in a good place with regard to a disinfecting strategy. The district is using Buckeye E23, he added, and Quaranta said he feels lucky to have enticed a retired school janitor to work part-time to disinfect the buses and the transportation department facility.
“We’re living and learning through all of this,” Quaranta said. “That’s all we can do.”