As we go into the tenth month of shutdowns, we saw a spot of good news in December — people in the U.S. are starting to get vaccines. Starting with one ICU nurse, the CDC has laid out recommendations for the expediency in which the limited vaccine supply will be distributed.
The first in line to get the vaccine are the most vulnerable populations: healthcare personnel and older adults living in facilities. After that, it’s up to each state to decide. It’s predicted that next in line are essential workers, people over 65 and those with preexisting conditions who are more vulnerable to severe COVID-19 infections.
According to the New York Times, “States and cities across the country are moving to put teachers near the front of the line to receive a coronavirus vaccine, in an effort to make it safer to return to classrooms and provide relief to struggling students and weary parents.”
School support staff — including drivers — are putting themselves on the front lines.
Seemingly everywhere you look, the focus is on getting the nation’s teachers vaccinated and back in the classroom, but the conversation seems to stop when speaking about support staff: nurses, janitors, cafeteria workers, and, of course, drivers in the education sector. In schools that are open, support staff are putting themselves on the front lines alongside teachers.
As the New York Times says: “Many more people work in schools than just teachers, including nurses, janitors and cafeteria workers, and it is unclear how many of them would be included on the high-priority list.”
We wholeheartedly agree that teachers are essential and vaccinations are necessary to reopen schools; however, the conversation cannot and should not be limited to educators. We believe transportation and other support staff are essential to education and need to be prioritized for vaccines alongside teachers.
A nationwide bus driver shortage compounds the issue of reopening schools.
Student transportation issues are only compounded by a nationwide bus driver shortage; with many bus drivers over 65 years of age, the existing deficit could be devastating if drivers aren’t prioritized for vaccination.
In a pre-COVID National Association of Pupil Transportation survey of school transportation professionals, 87 percent of respondents reported that the bus driver shortage was a major problem, with 70 percent saying it was getting worse.
It will get even worse post-COVID. Steve Simmons of the NAPT says “Some school districts have asked their transportation supervisors, ‘If we decided to go back to school 100% next week, what would you do?’ They said they would close. There’s just not enough drivers.”
School bus driver Teresa Keeton told NPR, “Districts across the country are planning a return to school with socially distanced classrooms and lower-capacity buses. But even with fewer kids on buses, many drivers are old enough that they’re at a higher risk of contracting COVID-19, leaving school districts across the country with a bus driver shortage.”
If transportation staff aren’t vaccinated, many children won’t even be able to get to school, regardless of teachers coming back for in-person learning.
Vulnerable students will need extra support and transportation.
This lack of access is especially crucial with the widening of the equity gap during COVID: low-income students are falling even further behind during the pandemic. These students will need support and transportation to and from school, as well as tutoring, appointments and other services, once they return to in-person instruction.
Many of the students supported by school buses, as well as alternative transportation solutions, face a drastic reality, with Bellwether Education Partners reporting:
- An estimated 3 million vulnerable students — who are homeless, in foster care, have disabilities or are learning English — appear to not be in school at all.
- In Los Angeles, 15-20 percent of English learners, students in foster care, students with disabilities, and homeless students didn’t access any of the district’s online educational materials from March through May.
- In Washington, D.C., back-to-school family surveys found that 60 percent of students lacked the devices and 27% lacked the high-speed internet access needed to successfully participate in virtual school.
HopSkipDrive supports students experiencing homelessness, in foster care, and with special needs (as well as other populations that need a little extra care).
“We deeply feel the plight of these students, as they miss out not only on education, the respite provided by school and the relationships built with HopSkipDrive CareDrivers on the drive and from school,” the company’s CEO and co-founder Joanna McFarland said.
More than logistics — transportation staff are part of the school day experience.
School bus drivers, as well as drivers for alternative transportation solutions, aren’t just the means to the end, how students get to school. They’re the first face a child sees at the beginning of the day and the last face they see on the way home. They bookend a student’s day and help set the tone for a good day. Drivers are mandated reporters; often the consistency of their contact with students means they notice when something is wrong.
For students experiencing homelessness or in foster care, relationships with empathetic adults, whether teachers, social workers or drivers, are incredibly important to providing a sense of stability and understanding. Drivers spend commute time talking and listening to children that need that extra level of warmth. Students with special needs need drivers, logistically, to get them to IEP appointments, but also to provide a positive experience.
Drivers provide more than just transportation; they’re an essential part of the educational operation and experience. They must be prioritized for vaccines alongside teachers if schools are to be reopened.