For many school districts transporting students to and from school, the usual mayhem of the school bus environment doesn’t look the same. Instead, the bus ride now comes with stringent seating assignments, mask mandates and reduced capacity.
Transportation directors shared with School Transportation News that due to new procedures in place, unintended benefits of improved student management and happier bus drivers are resulting. However, the additional protocols mean more rules for students to follow, which could result in some students suspended from the bus ride.
In a recent STN reader survey sent in December to transportation directors and supervisors, half of the 46 respondents said they have created a new policy for student behavior amid COVID-19. Many transportation directors shared they have included masks in their district’s three-strike policy, as well as mandated assigned seating and the use of video cameras to watch student interactions.
In October, the Associated Press reported on a fifth-grade student in New Hampshire who was kicked off the bus for not wearing a mask. The article quotes the mother of the student, Leilani Provencal, who said she received a notice regarding her son citing “inappropriate bus behavior” for “mask not worn over nose.”
The boy reportedly lowered his mask on the school bus to accept a mint from a friend, Provencal told media outlets. It was her son’s second offense, as he was previously written up for using an electronic device on the school bus.
Monroe Consolidated School’s website states that the first offense for a facemask incident results in a five-day bus suspension. A second offense results in 10 days off the bus. A third offense prompts a hearing with the school board and the bus company.
School Transportation News reached out to the school district, to inquire whether the policy was created by the district or its transportation service provider, JPI Transportation, Inc. But no response has been received at this writing.
However, other transportation departments are citing similar policies for their school buses and student passengers. One of those being Laurel Public Schools in Montana, which began transporting students on Aug. 20 for in-person learning.
According to regulations outlined by the state’s health department, Zada Stamper, the transportation director for the district, said bus capacity is not limited. However, students must board from the back of the bus to the front, with siblings sitting together. In addition to assigned seating this school year, the bus drivers started performing roll call, so that the district could easily contact trace which students were on the bus, if needed.
So far, Stamper said Laurel Public Schools has yet to report a positive COVID-19 test on the school bus, which she added is a noteworthy accomplishment because 14 school bus routes are running daily for about 300 students. The district transports 442 students a day in a normal school year.
She attributed the decreased ridership to more parents taking their children to school. Stamper said the district changed its school start time from 7:30 a.m. to 8:10 a.m. which allows parents to drop their children off on their way to work. This, she said, is putting less stress on the buses and drivers.
She added that students must also wear their masks upon entering the school bus, as well as apply hand sanitizer while they are boarding. She said the transportation behavior policy was updated to include the mask requirement for general education students who are refusing to wear the masks. By refusing, students could be removed from the bus. She noted there are exceptions to the mask mandate when they interfere with a student’s ability to breathe or communicate, as outlined under the student’s Section 504 Plans or Individualized Education Program.
“And then they sit in their assigned seat, so our behavior issues are way low compared to what they were a year ago,” Stamper explained. “Kids realized, ‘If I don’t behave, I’m not going to go to school. And I want to be in school.’”
She added that the improved onboard behavior is a result of students not wanting to be forced into virtual learning like they were last March. Plus, she said, they are also sitting with their siblings, so if behavior issues do arise, they are usually family-related.
Farwell Area Schools in Michigan have similar school bus riding requirements. Transportation Director Debbie Schomisch said the district started transporting students again during the last week of August.
She said the state health department recommended that families be seated together, and students are in assigned seats, which the district has adopted. She said at the beginning of the year, Farwell was able to sit one student per seat. But as the weather has changed, the department is now running school buses at about 70 percent capacity.
She said when boarding, all students are required to use the hand sanitizer dispenser installed on the bus and wear their masks throughout the entire ride. She said the district provided training at the start of the year to teach students how to properly wear their masks.
At first, Schomisch said bus drivers had to repeatedly remind students to wear masks. Now, students who refuse a mask and don’t change their behavior when asked results in phone calls home and a potential two-day bus suspension.
She added that her bus drivers have also seen improved behavior by the students on board, due to siblings sitting together. Though she noted last month that a girl back-handedly slapped a loose tooth from her brother’s mouth, she said those are rare circumstances, and sibling behavior issues are handled differently.
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Glenn Sykes, director of transportation for Alamosa School District in Colorado, echoed that sentiment. He said with siblings sitting together and assigned seats, student management has greatly improved.
“From a student standpoint, it’s been really nice because our write-ups are almost nonexistent. And it’s not just for [on the school bus], it’s all of the school,” Sykes explained. “We don’t have those mass interactions of 300 kids on a playground. There’s less opportunity for kids to butt heads or whatnot. That was not expected.”
The district is also operating at a reduced capacity compared to normal years. Sykes said usually 60 percent of the district’s population ride the school bus. But now, he said school buses are filled to about one-third of their normal capacity.
He added the decreased student behavior and reduced capacity has had a positive effect on his bus drivers. Sykes noted he lost 25 percent of his driver workforce in August due to retirement and concerns about the virus, so keeping drivers on staff is even more important this year.
He recalled times when drivers would voice frustration about being the only adult monitoring 84 student passengers. “It’s hard enough to hire drivers,” Sykes said.
Then you add in difficult kids and he said the driver shortage gets worse.
“They’re great drivers but they won’t stay if they can’t handle the kids,” he continued.
Sykes said running routes with reduced capacity is making the drivers’ jobs a lot easier, noting that he never sees capacities returning to pre-pandemic numbers, at least for a long time, due to people being uncomfortable being so close to others.