An Arkansas school district is answering some common questions asked by industry professionals over the summer on how to transport students again amid the ongoing pandemic.
Buses are rolling in Fayetteville Public Schools in Arkansas and have been since Aug. 24. Besides the additional cleaning and personal protective equipment, Michael McClure, the director of transportation services, shared it’s been pretty much business as usual.
McClure shared there was a lot of behind-the-scenes work necessary to get school bus drivers comfortable with transporting students again and trained on the additional COVID-19 protocols. He said the district added additional weeks prior to the start of school on Aug. 24, to allow for transportation department meetings and to allow drivers to refamiliarize themselves with their buses and their route, which helped cut back on drivers feeling rusty out on the road, as many hadn’t driven a school bus since March.
Prior to the start of school, the drivers attended an eight-hour training day consisting of the COVID-19 protocols. They also learned where all the school buses are now parked as the department has been especially hectic this year with construction on a new transportation facility in the works.
“My staff and I are in a small building on campus. Some of our buses are in our [yard] but they’re still doing concrete work, so we have probably a third of our buses there. Probably a third of our buses are at drivers’ homes. And then another third is parked down here at the campus where we are,” McClure explained. “So, there are a lot of moving parts.”
He added that his staff wasn’t able to fuel the school buses until the first day of school because the vehicles needed to be driven off-site for fueling. “And I tell people about all these moving parts and then I say, ‘Oh, by the way there’s a pandemic going on,’” he said.
Transporting in a COVID-19 Era
In terms of transporting students, McClure said his numbers are down by around half compared to student count last year which was 6,300 students’ across both the morning and afternoon routes. He explained this is due to parents transporting their children to school or opting for a full virtual learning.
McClure said Fayetteville originally had a hybrid reopening plan, until Cabinet Secretary Johnny Key and Deputy Commissioner Dr. Ivy Pfeffer of the Arkansas Department of Education released a document in early August that stated, “It is expected that all school districts offer, at a minimum, relevant and engaging onsite learning opportunities each day of the five-day school week (four if voted on by the board because that is an exception allowed by statute).”
The document continues that “districts are encouraged to provide additional options for parents and students that allow for flexible schedules and virtual learning options, but must first provide an onsite option where students can access educational resources, school meals, and other needed support daily.”
McClure said the district does see some students coming in five days a week, especially when their parents don’t have the job flexibility to keep their children home.
He added bus drivers are provided personal protective equipment, such as face coverings consisting of masks and shields, as well as gloves. The district is also providing face masks for students who forget them at home in the morning or lose them at school during the day.
“I’ve driven several routes this year and … I haven’t seen any issues with students [refusing to wear a mask.] They’re going to be one or two occasionally that may refuse but sometimes it’s just a reminder type of situation. ‘You have to have your mask on the bus,’ and most the time they’ll comply with that,” McClure explained.
As far as student health screening, McClure said all school sites are temperature-checking students prior to them entering the school buildings. He noted that temperature checks are not the responsibility of his transportation staff, and he added that he hopes that it’s not transportation’s job in any school district. Though he recognized that some states do encourage school district personnel to check temperatures before boarding and some districts have added bus assistants to do precisely that.
“That is not a safe option to have because drivers need to be looking for people running the red lights and students crossing,” he explained.
He added that the district has also installed hand sanitizer stations on all buses. While barriers are permitted in Arkansas school buses and some school bus drivers at the district have asked for them, McClure said it’s too cost-prohibitive to install them at this time. He explained he doesn’t know of any district in Arkansas that’s installing barriers and added that he believes face shields and masks serve the same purpose.
He admitted he did have some school bus drivers take a leave of absence due to health concerns, but compared to other districts he said he’s fortunate to only have lost two so far. He explained that the transportation department has tried to reassure the drivers that they are going to do everything they can to keep them safe. McClure explained the decreased student ridership and the required PPE are helping to alleviate some of the driver fears.
While the district is short drivers for three or four routes, staff were able to consolidate a couple of routes due to the decreased ridership. Yet McClure noted that sub drivers and office staff will be pressed into duty once activity and athletic trips restart.
McClure explained that he had hoped with unemployment rates so high, people would have turned to school busing as they did during the 2008 Recession. However, he noted that the local trucking industry is booming with the number of driver applications it is receiving. He pointed out that truck deliveries never shut down during the pandemic, and it’s possible to maintain social distancing when there is only one driver and no human cargo.
Positive COVID-19 Cases
While the school district has had positive COVID-19 cases, as McClure said he believes is the case with most of the larger school districts in Arkansas, they haven’t significantly impacted transportation. He said one school bus driver and a special needs aide tested positive, and another driver is currently in quarantine due to close contact.
“Our district procedure is for employees to self-report with an online form,” McClure said. “At that point, our director of health services contacts the person to determine close contacts and that information is reported to the Arkansas Department of Health. Positive tests and close contacts are quarantined per the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidelines.”
He said the department is using hand-held spray bottles to disinfect buses after each morning and afternoon run, as well as fogging buses on a weekly basis. “The difficulty, other than the virus itself, is protecting the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability (HIPPA) Act rights of individuals while providing adequate information to possible close contacts. Many employees and patrons are naturally curious as to who has been affected and infected.”
Related: Arkansas School District Remodels Transportation Department for COVID-19 Social Distancing
Related: Arkansas School District Transportation Director Shares Secrets of Pupil Transportation
Related: Tech Talk Breaks Down Legal Ramifications of COVID-19 Guidance
Related: Contractors Work to Keep School Buses Clean From COVID-19
Related: Student Transporters Face Challenges in Keeping Buses Clean, Safe Amid COVID-19
To his knowledge, there have been no students that have tested positive following a school bus ride, but he said guidelines issued by the CDC would call for anyone who had been within six feet of the student for 15 minutes or more to be quarantined.
McClure said his department has had to purchase additional PPE, but the cost was covered by the district. While he noted that his budget isn’t severely impacted now, he anticipates that it will be in years to come.
“I do think districts will see a big impact in the upcoming years, this next year and the year after that because people are unemployed, and so maybe that will affect the amount of property taxes we collect and things like that,” McClure explained. “But in the past, we’ve gotten in between two and three new buses every year. I can see where that might be limited to one or two over the next few years.”
He added that the funding for a new facility construction was already allocated prior to COVID-19, so that project will not be impacted.
“I think there’ll be some long-reaching effects of this, maybe not so much this year but in two to three years,” McClure concluded.