Despite a widespread interpretation that the installation of barriers around the driver compartment to help minimize the risk of COVID-19 exposure by staff would compromise federal school bus crashworthiness standards, Wisconsin approved the equipment with additional conditions.
In early June, The Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction released its interim guidance on transportation for the upcoming school year. The guidance discusses physical distancing in-depth, adding that seating students six feet apart on the school bus is preferred.
But when that is not feasible, the guidance states to use facial coverings and to keep student riders together throughout the day, so that contact tracing can be more easily accomplished. Other options to encourage physical distancing are installing a plexiglass barrier behind the driver compartment and establishing a buffer zone behind the bus driver by leaving the first row of seats empty.
The barriers, also known as sneeze guards, have become commonplace in transit buses.
About a week later, the Wisconsin Division of State Patrol (DPS) released a document stating its approval of a protective barrier device to prevent bodily fluids transmission between drivers and student passengers but with conditions.
Those conditions consist of the barrier device and all of its components being installed forward of the foremost right and left front seat barriers. The left front seat must also remain empty.
The barrier must be made of a shatter-proof material that is visually transparent. The materials should not be reflective or produce glare from sunlight that may restrict drivers’ views. The barrier must also not restrict sightlines to any mirrors or windows.
The DPS continues that the barrier shall not restrict the accessibility of the driver and any other adult personnel on board and not create any trip hazards, have sharp edges, or block the aisle and stepwell.
The barrier device shall not restrict driver access to any school bus controls, including the shift lever, dash-mounted controls, parking brake, fire extinguisher, first aid kit, or service door hand, lever, the DPS stated.
The document says the list is not all-inclusive and is only intended to provide examples. It adds that all other state statutes and transportation rules shall be reviewed prior to barrier installation, to ensure no other violations result.
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In addition to Wisconsin, the New Jersey Department of Education stated in its back-to-school guidance that installing a physical barrier between seats is a way to create social distancing on a school bus. The document discusses the additional challenges that come with installing partitions between seats, which could include additional cleaning.
It further states that any district considering a physical barrier between the bus driver and the students must receive approval from federal regulators and the New Jersey Motor Vehicle Commission.
Meanwhile, as reported previously, The Texas Department of Public Safety reminded all of its school districts in May that installing shields or barriers that separate the bus driver from the students is prohibited.
A statement issued by the Texas Department of Safety says that installing barriers is a violation of the Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards 222. The Texas Association of Pupil Transportation shared with School Transportation News that TAPT and Texas DPS consulted with Blue Bird Corporation, IC Bus and Thomas Built Buses to determine that barriers would violate the standard.
Additionally, representatives of the Student Transportation Aligned for Return to School (STARTS) Task Force advised against erecting barriers for the same reason.