With New York City Public School starting its new school year on Monday, all students are now back in class — either online or in person. What do both models mean for school bus transportation?
Many school districts nationwide are offering both in-classroom and online education under hybrid models, with about 65 percent of students in schools and the rest learning at home. For those students attending school once again in person, riding a school bus during the COVID-19 era means wearing a mask and sitting no more than two to a seat, often one to a seat, the latter recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Administrators care about safety but realize it can be impossible to keep students six feet apart or more on a bus. Because many parents will drive their children to school, there are fewer students on buses.
But in locations where routes are running, it means using hand sanitizer and being aware the virus can strike anyone at any time. Bus drivers are now tasked with wiping down all interior surfaces to reduce the possibility of virus transmission, before and after runs. In some areas, it means using disinfecting sprayers and misters.
The School District of Indian River County that serves Florida’s Atlantic Coast from Cocoa Beach to Vero Beach is making a serious effort to keep students safe from COVID-19. About 62 percent of the students are learning in traditional classrooms and the rest are working from home. Soon more students will return to classrooms and they will be riding on buses.
Cristen Maddux, a spokesperson for Indian River, shared that all students on buses are required to wear face masks. Seats are staggered, and only children from the same household are permitted to share seats. Otherwise, students must sit alone on each bus seat. Students board and fill the rear seats first and exit from the front to back, so they are not passing other students. Students are picked up in a certain order and sit in the same seat every day.
The buses are cleaned after each route and the bus driver wipes down seats and handles, using a special mix to sanitize and disinfect each bus. Students receive sanitizer when getting on the bus and bus drivers must also wear masks.
Two employees and six students have tested for COVID-19 so far at Indian River, Maddux said.
Students are also going back to the classrooms at the Hutto Independent School District in Texas. Students had previously been going to school entirely online, but with a recent change now most will be in classrooms every day. Families can decide if they want their children in school online or in person. More than 60 percent want to return to the classroom, however, that number could change. At the end of each marking period, parents can change their choice.
Efforts will be made to ensure student safety on buses, but social distancing will be impossible to guarantee. Many parents are expected to take their children to school and so there will be fewer students on buses. Students will be required to wear masks on buses, but they will be expected to bring their own. Some masks will be available to those who need them. There will be hand sanitizer on each bus, and students will be encouraged to use it.
“We can’t provide PPE for every student, it would cost us millions of dollars and there wouldn’t be enough supply,” said David Uecker, director of transportation for Hutto. “We will have 51 students per bus or no more than two people in each bus seat. We can’t really do social distancing on buses.”
There will be a strong emphasis on cleaning the interiors of the buses. Buses will be disinfected between elementary school and secondary school runs. There will be a deep cleaning each night after the last run. All surfaces on the buses will carefully be cleaned and sprayed, Uecker relayed.
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The Knox County School District in Tennessee has also offered in class and online education, with about 70 percent of students choosing to be in classrooms. Just as in other districts, there is an emphasis on keeping buses disinfected and everyone wearing masks.
“All students must wear masks on buses and wherever possible we have two students to a seat,” said Ryan Dillingham, the director of transportation. “Because many parents don’t want their children on buses and [instead] take their children to school, we have some buses with as few as five children. We do not allow more than two people in a seat. We clean the buses twice a day and we keep the windows open. We have plenty of hand sanitizer on each bus for the riders.”
Dillingham said this year has been a challenge. “We have never done this before and we are striving to be flexible. We have dedicated professionals making it work,” he added.
Jerene Jones, the transportation supervisor for the Catoosa County School District in northwest Georgia, said elementary school classes are being conducted entirely in classrooms. Meanwhile, middle and high school students are attending in-person on a hybrid basis a few days a week.
She said her bus drivers face challenges because they are working on alternate schedules. Parents can keep their children home, but most choosen not too. Jones said buses are cleaned thoroughly after students ride them and there is a major effort to keep the buses clean at all times.
All students must wear a face covering, scarf or face shield. Students must sit in assigned seats, and most of the time it is one person to a seat. Girls sit on one side of the bus and boys on the other, she said.
“The main problem is working with the alternate schedule. We have teams that clean the buses,” said Jones.