School districts in and around the Seattle area, a hotbed of COVID-19 since the virus broke out in the spring, are like many around the country — struggling to determine how or if they reopen physical classrooms in September.
Among the primary considerations, given the need for social distancing on a school bus, are determining if there will be enough buses to transport all the students who cannot walk, bike or ride with their parents.
How will onboard seating plans and student loading and unloading procedures be modified? Will the previous bell and bus schedules be changed? Will additional monitors be required, to ensure student distancing between classrooms and bus stops? And, will enough drivers be prepared to work fewer and/or shorter shifts, or longer shifts with overtime pay? How will the districts finance all these changes?
Seattle Public Schools announced on July 22 that it plans to reopen with an online-only, virtual learning module, pending school board approval on Aug. 12. District spokesman Tim Robinson said school buses at the district will likely continue distributing meals to
students, as they did after all schools closed in March.
“Meals are being delivered right now,” he added, “but the number of routes is less than it was. Whether this will continue, I’m guessing yes, but the plans haven’t been finalized.”
First Student operates the school busing contract for Seattle.
Meanwhile, Bellevue School District, located east of Seattle across Lake Washington, provided students with the option of 100-percent remote online learning. Based on results from a parent survey, only 25 percent of the students will need school bus transportation for the first semester of the school year, said Director of Transportation Mark Hazen.
The district will reallocate personnel to student bus stops with greater need. Many parents, the survey indicated, don’t feel safe sending their children to school on a school bus, so they plan to drive their kids to school. “It will create a traffic nightmare around schools,” Hazen said.
John Pike, the transportation supervisor for Everett Public Schools, located about 30 miles north of Seattle, said his district remains in the planning stages of what reopening will look like, including the transportation piece. “There are many complicating factors,” he added. “We are presenting our proposed plan to the board in the second week of August.”
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Even with mounting pressure to make decisions, school districts need more time. The plan for the nearby Edmonds School District includes a hybrid model of in-person and remote learning. As Transportation Director Ben Mount explained, one group of students will attend in-person sessions on Mondays and Tuesdays, while the other group engages in remote learning. Then the two groups will switch on Thursdays and Fridays. On Wednesdays, all students will be remote. This will cut school bus demand by about 50 percent, which will allow student distancing, Mount said.
He added that the district’s “standard routing plan” will have adjustments that were not yet determined at this report. Edmonds School District is concerned about having enough drivers because of competition from neighboring school districts. Edmonds said districts reside in the cities of Brier, Edmonds, Lynnwood, Mountlake Terrace, and parts of unincorporated Snohomish County. From school year to school year, many school bus drivers move from one district to another in search of higher wages, Mount explained.
Mount said he expects to rehire the same drivers who worked for him through mid-March if they are available.
“Many of our students do not have good walking paths to school, and many families do not have the resources or open schedules for self-transport,” he shared. “So, the social and economic disruptions they’ve experienced [since March] make transportation service even more important now.”