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Spiking COVID-19 Cases Don’t Deter Most Florida School Districts from Reopening

As schools and school buses start up nationwide amid the worst global pandemic in a century, the harsh realization that neither were set up for social distancing is not stopping efforts to protect students from the new coronavirus as they return to in-person instruction. 

There will be major changes in bus transportation this fall, and Florida is yet another case in point. But despite the state joining California with the most COVID-19 infections in the U.S., most school districts are offering both distance and in-class learning. But in doing the latter and offering transportation to students to and from comes with plenty of challenges.

Students who ride buses will have to observe some social distancing and wear masks while on the bus. It may not be possible to achieve six feet between every student rider, but efforts will be made to keep students apart and buses fully sanitized.

James Beekman, director of transportation for Hillsborough County Public Schools and president of the Florida Association of Pupil Transportation, said it will be a challenge to manage the social distancing of both students and employees. Many students may opt for virtual learning, but others—or their parents—will want to return to school.

The district near Tampa transports about 86,000 kids per day under normal circumstances. “We know that this number will be reduced during the first few days, but we don’t know how much of a reduction there will be. We have to plan [for] quick adjustments on the fly,” Beekman shared.

Buses normally hold between 65 and 77 passengers, but this year there can only be two to a seat. The result will be fewer than 50 kids on each run. Also, students must wear masks at all times when on the bus. If a student refuses to wear a mask, he or she will have to go to school online. Also, buses will be fully sanitized between runs.

“All the buses will be sprayed down and sanitized for the next morning,” said Beekman. “We do have hand sanitizers.”

In the Nassau County School District, transportation aims to promote safety from the SARS-Cov-2 virus on buses. Students will be required to wear a face-covering on board. Face coverings should be provided by parents, but disposable masks will be provided if necessary.

All touch-point surfaces will be wiped down daily with viricide after routes are completed. Each bus will be deep cleaned, disinfected, and misted with a viricide at the end of each day. Hand sanitizer stations will be located at the entrance of each bus, and students will be required to clean hands with hand sanitizer before entering. Positive fresh air circulation will be established on non-special needs buses by opening a front and rear window.

Students will be assigned seats and loaded back to front, with the reverse order for unloading to minimize contact. If there is a suspected or confirmed case of COVID-19 on a bus, that bus will be pulled from service and replaced with a spare. The bus will not be returned to service until it can be thoroughly cleaned and disinfected.

Students who become sick during the day will not use group transportation to return home. Drivers and aides will wear face coverings and self-monitor health status prior to the start of each workday. Drivers will receive specific training on cleaning procedures and the safe usage and storage of cleaning products, according to Brad Underhill, a director of transportation for Nassau County School District.

George Millar, senior coordinator of transportation for Polk County Schools, said that as of the end of July students had the option to come to school full time or to receive their education in a virtual environment. Under those plans, the buses will run with capacity limits and children will be placed two to a seat. This means there will about 50 children on a 77-passenger bus. Each bus will be thoroughly cleaned between runs.

Students will wear facial coverings. “It would be impossible to keep students six feet apart on buses, but we will be doing as much as we can to sanitize the buses,” said Millar.

But some county school districts will not open for in-person classes this month until local infection figures are reduced. Broward County Public Schools, which starts the new school year on Aug. 19, is awaiting the number of coronavirus cases to go down considerably. It also means there will be no athletic and extra-circular activities that will require school buses.

Miami-Dade schools will open on Aug. 31, also in an e-learning format. School board members and leaders from both districts have said they will not allow in-person instruction until the positivity rate goes down.

Also scheduled to reopen on Aug. 31 but for in-person instruction is Sarasota County School District. Director of Transportation Jason Harris said his staff is preparing to seat two students to a seat. This will reduce passenger capacity to 50 students on each bus.

“We will have all students, the driver and the attendant wearing masks. We will have plenty of hand sanitizer on each bus. We will also have a supply of masks for students who need one,” he relayed. “We have a regimented cleaning schedule after morning and afternoon runs. We will disinfect each bus. We will have students load from back to front and unload from front to back. Also, the windows will be open to circulate air. When the buses are parked, the heat will kill [the] coronavirus,” said Harris.

Related: Florida Students Ordered Back to In-Person Classes, But Counties Retain Flexibility
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Meanwhile, the School District of Osceola County, located south of Orlando, is preparing to begin transporting students on Aug. 24. Director of Transportation Arby Creach said the goal is to follow all Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines and to verity that all personnel have received instruction on those recommendations.

Despite social distancing taking place during personnel meetings, Creach said there is no way students can be kept six feet apart on buses. To do so would mean needing hundreds of additional new buses that can’t be manufactured quickly enough, not to mention many more drivers.

Each current bus can hold about 77 passengers but this fall, the buses will carry about 50 people.

“Everyone on the buses will be wearing masks and there will be plenty of hand sanitizer,” said Creach. “There will be two students per seat. We will not be taking temperature[s]. If someone is sick, we will bring them to school. We cannot leave a child on the side of a road.”

There will be a major effort to sanitize each bus thoroughly after each run. “Drivers will wipe down all surfaces and each morning run. Also, buses sit in the sun and during the day the interiors can reach temperatures of 130 degrees,” said Creach. “We are going to [take] extraordinary efforts to make sure the buses are clean.”

Creach said he knows there will be difficulties in the fall. He said he fears that some students might drink the hand sanitizer on a dare. About 21 percent of the bus drivers are also over age 65 and so far, nine have resigned or retired.

“We are up against a brick wall and we all have to work together,” he said.

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