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Masking on School Buses: The Uncertainty Continues

Student transporters seek answers as operations start back up amid the COVID-19 Delta variant that now targets children

As the school year resumes nationwide, questions related to masking on buses continue to loom.  Should students and drivers be required to wear face coverings? Can the practice make a real difference in protecting riders? Just how much flexibility do school leaders have in deciding how to operate when it comes to masking?

As if such questions weren’t challenging enough already, the rapid emergence of the latest COVID-19 Delta variant has raised significant new concerns, as the strain reportedly affects children in ways the original didn’t. And to further confuse things, not only are school officials hearing different directives but determining which ones stand as true mandates and which are only strong suggestions can be unclear.

For instance, in late July, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) revised earlier guidance to require that once again everyone, regardless of vaccination status, use masks indoors. A federal order to require masks on public transportation and school buses also remains in effect.

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL), at least 13 states — including California, Kansas, New York and Pennsylvania — publicly support the CDC order as it applies to bus transportation in their own state’s COVID-19 safety procedures.

Arguing that masking should be a matter of personal choice rather than a government mandate, the governors of Arizona, Florida and Texas are standing pat on prohibiting local entities including schools, from imposing mask mandates. Kyrene School District in Phoenix now recommends masks to remain in compliance with Gov. Doug Ducey’s order for buildings but still requiring them for school buses.

“The CDC is part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and as such, an order from the CDC carries the weight of federal law. Both the CDC and the Arizona Department of Education have recently confirmed the order applies to school buses in Arizona,” a district spokesperson emailed School Transportation News on Thursday. “Kyrene legal counsel advised that the U.S. Constitution’s Supremacy Clause establishes that federal law takes precedence over state laws, and Kyrene must comply with the CDC order.”

The spokesperson added that Superintendent Laura Toenjes and the Governing Board share the frustration in the local community — and elsewhere — about the conflicting guidance coming from local, state and federal authorities.

“In Kyrene, our focus is on providing an exceptional education for students,” the spokesperson added. “We will always follow the law and rely on official health agencies to provide guidance for ensuring safe and healthy learning environments.”

In Florida, Miami-Dade County Public Schools, Florida’s largest school district wants to still require masks despite Gov. Ron DeSantis’ decree. Yet it fears losing state funding if it moves forward.

Then there is Houston Independent School District, which continues to require all students and staff to wear masks during the school day and on school property.

States That Support
CDC Masking
Guidelines
As of Aug. 4, 2021

 

California
Connecticut
Washington, D.C
Kansas
Louisiana
Massachusetts
Missouri
New Jersey
New York
Pennsylvania
Rhode Island
Vermont
Wisconsin

Source: National Conference of
State Legislatures

Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson signed a similar law banning masks in April but on Wednesday expressed remorse because children under 12 who don’t have a vaccine available are vulnerable to the new strain.

Elsewhere, Colorado’s Aurora Public Schools and Long County School District in Georgia have decided on their own to require masks on buses, the NCSL reported.

The inconsistency on just what is required or allowable is obvious. But some legal experts stated that ignoring CDC guidance could open schools to liability. That was the precise message of transportation attorney Matthew Daus to attendees of the School Transportation News’ virtual Bus Technology Summit last September. Others opine states hold the real authority and that federal mandates should be treated as guidelines rather than absolute requirements, whether from the CDC or the U.S. Department of Education.

So, where does that leave things for those charged with safely transporting students? Looking at the upcoming school year, opinions on what to expect vary across the country, with the prospect of change hanging in the air. When you factor in virus info that keeps evolving to political maneuvering to militant parents on both sides of the issue, the challenges for school transportation leaders can be daunting.

“It is beyond frustrating,” said Rebecka Sykes, director of transportation for Sargent School District RE-33J in Monte Vista, Colorado, where masks were required for students and drivers last year but are not mandated for 2021-2022 school year, at least not yet. “Everything changes, and we are some of the last to know yet expected to keep up with all of the changes regardless of knowledge or capability base,” she said.

Along with changes at the federal and state levels, Sykes noted that while the majority of the community is opposed to having kids wear masks for eight-plus hours a day, some parents are infuriated that everyone is not in a mask. According to a CDC tracker of counties nationwide, Rio Grande County, where her district is located, currently has a high level of community transmission.

“To say that it has been a challenging situation puts it mildly,” Skyes explained.

In issuing its new recommendations, the CDC did point out that not all areas of the country should require masks because they are not hotbeds for virus spread — at least not yet.

Mohawk Local School District in Sycamore, Ohio currently does not require face coverings for students or drivers, despite a substantial level of community transmission.

“It’s the option of the drivers and students to wear a mask and decisions will be respected by all,” said Jason Price, Mohawk’s transportation director.

That degree of choice represents a change from the past school year, and the rules could be altered again.

“Just like last year, we abide by our local health department, which is guided by the state,” he added.

Price shared that while the federal government has also issued guidelines, he feels it’s more of a local issue. “All they are [are] recommendations, not mandates,” he said. And regardless of masking practices, buses will still be sanitized the same as last year.

The situation is similar for Laurel Public Schools southwest of Billings, Montana. Zada Stamper, the transportation director, recalled that the state’s Superintendent of Public Instruction Elsie Arntzen has been advocating for personal choice, even with some public health experts pushing for mandates. Even though her stance has recently moved toward masking, local officials have been allowed flexibility, and Stamper said she doesn’t foresee a mandate anytime soon.

“If you live in a small county in Montana and have no or few cases, you should be allowed to stay open and run business as usual,” she said. “If you’re in a higher populated area with higher risks, then that county’s health department may recommend masking.”

According to the CDC tracker, Yellowstone County, where Laurel is located, rates as having a high level of community transmission.


Related: Masks Up (and Off?)
Related: States Lift Mask Mandates, School Districts Following Suit?
Related: No Shoes, No Shirt, No Mask … No School Bus Service
Related: CDC Says Double Masks, Tightly Fitted Masks Further Reduce Virus Transmission


For Kathie Bostrom, director of transportation for Huron School District 2-2 in Huron, South Dakota, the significance of masks is clear. Even though masking requirements have been relaxed, Bostrom is prepared to return to last year’s tighter standards. Huron is located in Beadle County, which CDC says has a substantial transmission rate.

“The school bus is a yellow tin can filled with germs on a daily basis, with absolutely no way to properly social distance and still adequately provide transportation to thousands of students twice a day,” she said. “I believe that requiring the bus drivers, and every student on the bus to properly wear a mask at all times while on the bus for the entire school year allowed this district to go to school the entire year without missing a single day.”

Along with masking requirements, her staff used soft shield seat dividers in every row of each bus and disinfected buses twice a day. Bostrom said she realizes the same practices may be needed again soon. “We need to do whatever we have to, which could mean going back to masks to start this school year, in order to provide the necessary transportation for students so that they have an opportunity for an education,” she said.

Regardless of local conditions, staying on top of COVID-19 restrictions and protocols has added new layers of responsibility to transportation leaders. And it looks like the future may bring more of the same.

“It’s certainly a challenge to protect not only students but bus drivers and bus aides as well,” said Adam James, director of transportation for Greenville County Schools in Taylors, South Carolina, where state legislation now prohibits mask mandates despite all counties but one showing high virus transmission rates. “Keeping our passengers, drivers, and aides protected has been the bulk of our work since the start of the pandemic.”

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