The California Department of Education (CDE) unveiled best-practice recommendations to school districts for how they should transport students once the new school year begins, with one of those suggestions including the assignment of an aide on each bus to screen student health and ensure physical distancing as well as reduced passenger capacity.
The best practices were included in a 55-page document titled “Safe Together: A Guidebook for the Safe Reopening of California’s Public Schools,” released on Monday. Transportation is listed in the school services section. It also discusses loading zones and school bus stops, physical distancing of students, vehicle cleaning, maintenance scheduling, and driver certification.
Few details are provided, and the state’s schools chief said much work remains to be done.
“We know that guidance is only as good as its implementation, so think of this as the beginning of the conversation—not the end,” said State Superintendent Tony Thurmond on Monday. “We know that for many of us, this is the toughest challenge that we’ll ever face, perhaps in our lifetime. But when it comes to ensuring that California students continue receiving a high-quality education — and doing so safely — we must rise to meet the challenge.”
First, CDE recommends that transportation departments align with the learning model adopted by the school district. The agency provided four examples but noted that there are additional options.
“Collaboration between the instructional program staff, school transportation staff, and city bus services will be necessary to ensure students reliant on school and city buses will be at school on time,” the guidelines state. “Given the complexities of aligning transportation and instructional models, collaboration and further statewide dialogue on strategies and different scenarios will need to occur. It is critical to plan for the safe transportation of students to and from school during this pandemic.”
CDE suggested that districts could move to a two-day blended learning model, which would involve students in certain grade levels reporting to school two days a week for in-person learning and engaging in “enrichment opportunities” through community programs or in smaller group settings two days a week. All students across the district would distance learn on Fridays.
Another option is alternate weekly blended learning. It would entail half of the student population attending in-person learning for a full four days one week, while the other half engages in distance learning. The groups would then switch the following week.
A “looping structure” would allow transitional kindergarten through eighth-grade students to remain with the same teacher for multiple grade levels, for example first and second grade to increase literacy rates on or above grade level.
CDE also suggested that districts stagger start and dismissal times for certain closely related grade levels.
School districts are asked to maintain six feet of distance between students on a school bus, meaning one student seated per bench, skipping every row, or one student to a bench, alternating rows on each side to create a zigzag pattern on the bus. CDE recommended marking or blocking seats that must be left vacant.
Before students get on the school bus, CDE recommends that school districts and school bus contractors determine if there is six feet of space for physical distancing at bus stops and school loading and unloading zones. Students would also be required to wear face coverings at the stop and continue to do so on the bus.
“Once physical space is confirmed, it is important to inform students and parents and guardians of steps they must take to keep students and staff safe during loading and unloading,” advise the guidelines. “If transportation providers take the temperature of children prior to loading and unloading the school bus the provider may need procedures in place for proper training to meet local policies.”
These procedures include a bus aide assigned to each route to ensure distancing and to perform symptom screenings.
Once allowed on the school bus, students take seats from the rear of the bus forward and must wear face coverings. In the afternoon, students would board the bus based on when they will be dropped off at home.
“Students who get off first should board last and sit in the front,” the guidelines add.
In terms of vehicle maintenance, CDE says all vehicles must comply with maintenance and inspection requirements before being placed back into service in accordance with Title 13 CCR 1232 Periodic Preventive Maintenance Inspection.
“Carriers and drivers need to look closely at each Vehicle Inspection Approval Certificate (CHP 292), in accordance with Title 13 CCR 1231 Vehicle Inspection Approval Certificate,” adds CDE. “Carriers and drivers need to make sure the vehicle’s certificate is still valid and that 13 months from the last inspection have not been exceeded, in accordance with Vehicle Code 2807 Lawful Orders and Inspections.”
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The CDE points to guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on vehicle cleaning and sanitizing, which include wearing disposable gloves and routinely cleaning surfaces with soap and water before using a disinfectant. Diluted household bleach or 70 percent or higher alcohol solutions may be used, if appropriate for the surface. CDC recommends soap and water as well as a disinfectant for soft surfaces.
For electronics, CDC advises to use put a wipeable cover on electronics and to follow manufacturer instructions for cleaning and disinfecting. If there is no manufacturer guidance, CDC said to use alcohol-based wipes or spray containing at least 70 percent before drying surfaces thoroughly.
What does not change is that school districts must still ensure that all bus drivers meet licensing requirements before operating the vehicles.
CDE says there are 24,201 public and privately owned school buses statewide that transport approximately 1,121,857 students to and from school each day.