As schools gradually return more students to physical classrooms, school bus transportation companies are ensuring their buses are properly cleaned and disinfected, if possible, with students seated apart. Where allowed by state regulations, buses are equipped with hand sanitizers and are cleaned after every run. And all students must wear masks.
About 60 percent of students have returned to classrooms under either a hybrid or 100-percent, in-person education models, according to School Transportation News readers who responded to a survey in October. But many parents are insisting that they drive their children themselves, which is allowing many operations to keep student passenger capacity at manageable levels, allowing for distance between student passengers.
Bus contractors large and small are still working overtime to make sure that all students are safe and the buses are clean. Thomas Smith, the vice president of operations and business development for Suffolk Transportation Service on New York’s Long Island, helps run a private family operation that provides service for 19 school districts. He said many of the schools continue with hybrid education models while also progressing toward full-week, in-person learning, with students attending physical classes a couple of days a week and remaining at home for virtual classes the rest of the week. It is a challenge, but the drivers are adapting, he said.
“Our drivers need a calendar or cohort schedule because some districts are doing five days in-person but most are doing a hybrid day. We have developed a good plan,” said Smith. “We have drivers wearing PPE and masks. At the end of each run, each bus is sanitized with an application of a cleaner disinfectant. We have good communication and the kids understand they need to wear masks when on the bus. They also understand they need to wash their hands. We are instructing our drivers to open windows to increase ventilation on the buses.”
Smith said it is important to provide a safe environment on each bus. Many parents take their children to school, so there are fewer children he explained.
“On a large school bus, we have about one child per seat and about 21 students per bus,” he said, adding that the seat behind the bus driver remains empty. “People are migrating back to the buses. It is really great to be working the various communities we serve and getting kids back to the classroom.”
School District Efforts
Students have also been going back to classrooms at Hutto Independent Schools District in Texas. Previously students were attending school entirely online, but now most will be in classrooms every day. Families can decide if they want their children in school online or in person. However, more than 60 percent want to return to the classroom. At the end of each marking period, they can make a choice.
David Uecker, director of transportation for Hutto ISD, said it is impossible to provide PPE for every student because it would cost millions of dollars to do so. Full social distancing is also impossible on school buses. “We will have 51 students per bus or no more than two people in the bus seats,” he added. “We can’t really do social distancing on buses.”
There is 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 before the first run. All surfaces on the buses will carefully be cleaned and sprayed, Uecker explained.
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 inherently fewer people on buses. Students will be required to wear masks on buses, but they will be expected to bring their own. Some masks however will be available on the buses if students forget theirs at home, or lose them while at school. There will also be hand sanitizer on each bus and students will be encouraged to use it.
Todd Edwards, school bus operations manager for Miller Transportation in Indiana, said that efforts to get children to wear masks on buses have been successful. Elementary schools have been able to convince nearly everyone to wear face coverings. All buses are wiped down regularly and disinfectants are constantly used.
“Each driver is responsible for disinfecting the bus and keeping it clean. Many of the students are doing virtual learning,” Edwards added.
He said that with so many schools offering different schedules, it is hard for bus drivers to know how many hours a week they’ll receive. Until an effective vaccine is found, this may be the reality for a while. But the children are going to back to school with COVID-19 safety protocols in place. Students on buses are assigned seats for contact tracing. The seat behind the driver is empty as is the first seat on the passenger side. “Kids are wearing masks and using handwashing stations. Students are encouraged to bring [their own] hand sanitizer,” he said.
Drivers are expected to wipe down high-touch areas after every run. They also have a spray bottle of disinfectant they use to sanitize the bus. Drivers also wear face coverings, Edwards noted.
“Currently, we are running 51 of 72 routes for 10 charter schools out of 13 that contract with us. All are doing some sort of hybrid learning,” Edwards relayed. “We seem to be doing quite well with the K-5 aged group. One of the charter schools started back with 6-12 [grades] on a rotating basis and seems to be fine. No one has added buses, but most are running 17 to 20 students on the bus, some as few as three. Parents have been encouraged to bring their child to school if possible.”
Edwards said he believes there will be ups and downs until there is a proven vaccine that is widely accepted.
Meanwhile, more schools are bringing back sports and clubs, and bus companies are addressing these needs. “We have been doing quite a bit of sports teams transport, with social distancing, utilizing more buses than they had previously. I do have orders on the books for some field trips, starting in mid-October. They are utilizing more buses to provide social distancing and going to outdoor activities,” said Edwards.
First Student is encouraging students to wear masks and stay distant on the company’s 40,000 school buses operating across North America. Alessia Morris is an area general manager for the Inland Empire east of Los Angeles and for Arizona. She said she knows students and teachers are eager to get back to class and many will have to ride buses to get there.
Morris and other transportation leaders are working to ensure that students are as safe as possible on school buses. Efforts are being made to develop and use more effective hand sanitizer and to ensure that all students wear masks when on buses. While it is not possible to separate children by six feet at all times, students are limited to two to a seat and in many situations, students are sitting one to a seat.
“We are doing awesome and the best we can. We remind students they must wear a face mask when on the bus,” Morris said. “Some students do not want to keep masks on and so we are educating them on the importance of keeping masks on for safety. The parents are on board with what we are doing. We are constantly sanitizing our buses and drivers are wiping down high touch areas. We are constantly looking for ways to improve safety for our students. We hope this ends soon.”
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Laura Cortez, the general manager for Durham School Services in Lubbock Texas said she is pleased with the progress being made. Durham operates throughout the United States and is owned by National Express LLC, a company that provides bus service throughout North America.
“When COVID-19 hit, we were in Spring Break and we got a call about it. We put an action plan into place,” she said. “We were delivering food to all the kids affected by the pandemic with 20 or more routes going into neighborhoods delivering food to the community. We were [also] delivering homework assignments.”
Cortez added, “Now the kids are going back to regular school with COVID-19 protocols. They are wearing masks and there are more handwashing stations. Actually, masks are becoming a fashion statement.”
Laura Green-Halley, the director of the BeSafe and transporting students with disabilities for First Student, said the main focus with the Start Safe Task Force management has been to promote health and safety.
“We are focused on disinfecting our vehicles and having students wear masks on buses,” said Green- Halley. “We can never guarantee social distancing on buses but we have implemented best practices. Students and drivers are required to have face coverings. We keep windows open to increase airflow on the buses and some districts load from the rear of the bus forward.”
Students are encouraged to use hand sanitizer and wash their hands frequently. If possible, students are encouraged to sit apart, she added.
Going to school is very different in the era of COVID-19. Young people and adults are having to learn to pursue education while also practicing social distancing and the wear of facial coverings. Everyone is hoping an effective vaccine will soon be developed so the world can get back to normal.