What started last spring as local and state decisions to require masks to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 on school buses has turned into a federal mandate.
In an October 2020 reader survey conducted by School Transportation News, 5 percent of 217 respondents said they weren’t requiring masks for student passengers when on board the school bus. Meanwhile, nearly all respondents reported that school bus drivers were required to wear a mask.
However, following President Joe Biden’s Executive Order No. 13998, “Promoting COVID-19 Safety in Domestic and International Travel” last month, student passengers of both publicly and privately operated school buses now fall under the mask requirement.
At this report, an April reader survey indicates that 2 percent of 101 respondents are still not requiring face masks for their driving staff and student passengers. One transportation director specifically told School Transportation News that despite the new national security directive issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), their district is continuing with a no-mask policy.
What are the ramifications of not requiring masks? As discussed in a previous School Transportation News article, the CDC’s 11-page emergency order states that masks must be worn by all passengers of public transportation vehicles, which took effect on Feb. 1.
The CDC confirmed to School Transportation News that masks are required for any onboard passengers and those operating the school buses. Therefore, not wearing a mask is in direct violation of federal law and according to the CDC could result in criminal penalties.
However, there are some exceptions. The order states that the mask mandate does not apply while someone is eating, drinking or taking medication over short periods of time; communicating with someone who is hearing impaired; using oxygen masks on an aircraft; is otherwise “unconscious” for any reason other than sleeping; and when required to verify one’s identity.
It also does not apply to anyone under the age of 2, a person with a disability who cannot wear a mask or cannot safely wear a mask because of the disability as defined by the Americans with Disabilities Act, and a person for whom wearing a mask would create a risk to workplace health, safety or job duty, as determined by the relevant workplace safety guidelines or federal regulations.
The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) is enforcing the new security directive for surface transportation modes excluding school buses. But David Cooper, TSA’s industry engagement manager, shared during a United Motorcoach Association weekly online town hall meeting earlier this month that the federal government is not trying to be punitive in enforcing mask usage.
“The intent of this is just to get people to wear a mask, not to pressure civil or criminal penalties, it’s to get people to wear a mask, to prevent our transportation workers from getting sick, and to prevent other folks in public transportation from getting sick,” Cooper said.
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Matthew W. Daus, Esq., the chair of law firm Windels Marx, Lane and Mittendorf’s transportation law practice commented that President Biden’s executive order requires the head of any executive department and agencies that have relevant regularity authority to “immediately take action to the extent appropriate and consistent with applicable law, to require masks to be worn in compliance with CDC guidelines.” As such, Daus commented that the U.S. Department of Education could intervene to force school district compliance.
“It is also possible that under the President’s Executive Order that the U.S. Department of Education (DOE) could intervene to force compliance by withholding funds from school districts which do not require face masks on school buses,” Daus explained to School Transportation News.
He added that school districts typically receive federal funds and could be subject to enforcement actions authorized by 2 CFR §§ 200.339 – .340, the Uniform Administrative Requirements, Cost Principles, and Audit Requirements for Federal Awards that apply to all federal agencies, including the U.S. DOE.
How Are School Districts Complying?
Following the release of the CDC mask mandate, several news articles surfaced relating to school districts revaluating their on-board mask policies. For instance, Walker County School District in LaFayette, Georgia, reported that it began enforcing a mask requirement on Feb. 8, a week after the CDC published its directive.
In the district’s original reopening plans, masks were recommended but not required on school buses. Now, the district will reportedly be providing masks to students who don’t have one when boarding the bus.
The same is true for the Richmond County School System in Augusta, Georgia, which is also looking to require bus riders to wear face coverings during transportation to and from school.
Meanwhile, Keith Chrans, the transportation director for Campbell County School District in Gillette, Wyoming, said an original mask policy stated that if social distancing could be adhered to, especially on athletic trips, then masks were not required. However, the district saw increased ridership on regular home-to-school routes at the start of the school year, so social distancing was not possible.
Following the federal mask mandate for school buses, Chrans said the transportation policy has been updated to require a mask, even when passengers are six feet apart on board the bus.
Chrans added that because students continuously forget their mask or lose it during the school day, school bus drivers have extras on board. He said that some of his school bus drivers have even gone as far as purchasing a mask for each student on their route. Following the ride, the student’s mask is placed back in a sealed plastic bag with their name on it and kept on the bus for their next ride.
Other drivers offer reusable masks that students can use if they forget theirs. At the completion of routes, Chrans relayed that the students put the borrowed reusable masks in a laundry basket and drivers wash them overnight.
Chrans added that if students refuse a mask, drivers treat the situation as they would any other disciplinary action onboard the vehicle.
“[It’s a] warning to the parents that their kiddos aren’t wearing their mask appropriately,” Chrans explained. “And if the parents can work with their child to see if they can eradicate that, that’s great. If not, then the student would lose bus privileges for a day or longer, depending on how many times the infraction happened.”
Kim Picetti, the transportation coordinator for Pyramid Lake Schools in Nixon, Nevada, said her district is currently transporting only a quarter of 155 students normally bused. She said these students attending school in-person are the ones struggling in the virtual learning format as well as students with special needs and disabilities that need additional help.
She said Pyramid Lake only transports middle and high school students. She explained that if students show up at the bus stop without a mask, drivers do have a box of masks available. But she said it’s up to the students to wear them correctly.
She said the masks have to cover the student’s noses, and the children are required to have them on during the entire ride, unless unable to wear a mask as outlined under their Individual Education Program. Though, she added, most of her students don’t have a problem with wearing the masks.
“And then, if they take their mask off it’s like an automatic write-up, and parents are called,” Picetti said, adding that the district sent letters home to the parents outlining the rules.
She noted that in addition to wearing masks, the letter covers student body temperatures that are taken by staff prior to boarding, and students must also use hand sanitizer upon entering. The school bus driver or aide asks the students if they have a fever, cough, sore throat, shortness of breath, or if the student has knowingly been in close contact or cared for someone who tested positive for COVID-19.
“If there is a yes to any of these questions or their temperature is over 100.3 [degrees], students are not allowed on the bus and [the] parent or guardian is notified,” Picetti said.
She added that her 15 school bus drivers must also follow the same policy while driving and onboard the school bus. Picetti explained that a couple of drivers were concerned about wearing masks at first, but they discovered that the masks didn’t hinder their driving ability. She added that she even accommodates drivers with shorter routes if they struggle with the mask for long periods of time.
“Actually, it’s working out great because we did notify [the parents.] We did let them know what our expectations were,” Picetti said, noting that because students are required to wear masks everywhere throughout the community including the school bus isn’t a big ask.