While Kansas school districts shut their doors for the remainder of the 2019-2020 school year, the state’s department of education said hourly employees must continue to get paid, as student transportation operations can utilize this time to work on school bus maintenance issues.
On March 17, Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly announced that all K-12 schools would be closed for the remainder of the school year, due to the coronavirus outbreak. Kansas was the first state to close its doors. Oklahoma and Virginia subsequently made similar announcements.
Meanwhile, schools in California, New Jersey and North Dakota remained closed until further notice, according to Education Week. Another eight states were scheduled to be closed through May 1, and 30 states were closed through most or all of April. Three states (Alabama, South Dakota and Tennessee) were scheduled to open by the end of March, and closures in three other states (Iowa, Maine and Nebraska) were made on a school district-by-school district basis.
Keith Dreiling, school bus safety director for the Kansas State Department of Education (KSDE), told School Transportation News that school buses will remain in operation on a limited basis to perform other tasks, other than transporting students to and from school, including delivering meals and transporting small groups of students and employees as needed.
For example, Tony Yungeberg, transportation director at Valley Heights USD #498 in Waterville, Kansas, said that he has a couple of his route drivers delivering meals to rural families during this time.
He added that one of his driver trainers has also been working with applicants to get them properly trained for the upcoming school year, as well as deep cleaning every single school bus.
He said a positive measure taken by the KSDE, is that school districts must continue to pay their hourly employees, which includes school bus drivers. Yungeberg noted that the drivers might not receive their activity pay, but they will be guaranteed their route hours for each day.
Dreiling explained that Kansas students, as required by law, must log 1,116 hours of school attendance each school year. However, due to COVID-19 and the school closures, he said that requirement won’t be met. He said schools can ask the KSDE for a waiver regarding this requirement, but as a condition for granting that waiver, districts must continue to pay their hourly employees for the remainder of the 2019-2020 school year.
“We believe it’s critical to take care of these employees,” Dreiling said. “They have families and obligations just like the rest of us. They contribute to our economy. And as schools are moving into unchartered waters, we’re going to need all hands on deck. In fact, it was important enough to make it a condition for school districts to receive a waiver from the legal requirement for Kansas students to have 1,116 hours of school attendance.”
Yungeberg noted that he is thankful that the KSDE is ensuring hourly employees are paid, as it will keep his staff in check. “I feel comfortable that the drivers, per se that we ended this year with, will start the next year with us,” he explained.
The KSDE noted school districts that contract out their transportation services must base payment on the contract terms with each individual vendor.
Yungeberg added that a “silver lining” could be an influx of school bus driver applicants in response to a souring economy. However, he doesn’t anticipate that happening in his district, due to the local agricultural job market, which he said is staying strong despite other uncertainty resulting from the COVID-19 crisis.
“We may not see the increase in unemployment around here [compared to] if you went 30 to 40 miles south of us, toward Manhattan,” Yungeberg said.
Despite the schools being closed, Dreiling advised that transportation departments can use this time to get their school buses in good mechanical condition.
“Schools should be in the process of disinfecting and cleaning their buses,” Dreiling said. “Schools and contractors should have extra time to perform maintenance and prepare for the state’s annual inspection process which takes place between June 1 and Sept. 30.”
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Yungeberg said his district is small, so the facility maintenance department also performs some maintenance on the school buses. He noted with this halt in everyday operations, these employees will have more time to dive deeper into some of the bus mechanical issues that they’ve had.
He said this is also a good time to get a jump start on servicing school bus recalls so that buses can be back in operation by the start of the new school year.
Yungeberg said he is thankful for his state officials during this time. “I feel like as a state, our leadership has reached out and has been as proactive as possible, there is no way anyone can plan for something like this. But as my 16-year-old daughter said, ‘We are living in a time of history right now that we will be telling our kids about.’”