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Rethinking School Startup for Students with Special Needs

Post-pandemic brings new realities, problem-solving to the issues of mandated transportation for the most vulnerable student population.

Getting vulnerable kids to school has always been challenging, but the spread of COVID-19 brings a whole new set of problems. How do you rearrange the school bus so students with wheelchairs are sitting far enough apart to adhere to physical distancing requirements? How do bus drivers and monitors adhere to those same standards when securing students? What do you do if a student with behavioral issues can’t keep a mask on? Will more or less students with special needs require transportation? How do you balance health concerns while providing the least restrictive environment?

“A majority of the solutions are unfortunately going to put us into positions where it’s going to require more drivers and more buses. I don’t see a way to get around that,” said Theresa Anderson, a former school transportation director who is now a consultant near Denver. “Whatever the new social distancing norm may look like, we may have to stagger the seating.”

She advised that districts, when and where possible, should purchase flat-floor buses, which she noted can be more easily configured to different seating options, both for students in wheelchairs or those secured in child safety restraint systems on traditional bench seats. She pointed out that these buses don’t have obstacles such as wheel wells and they increase the equity of the ride for all students.

“Kids are still kids, regardless of ability,” she said.

While transportation service for students with special needs had come to a standstill at this report, district managers can still use this time to strengthen existing training, service equipment, and begin to evaluate options for when buses return to the road with students on board.

“We’re looking at updating all of our training programs. We have some pretty rigorous curriculum that the applicants have to sift through and because our district now only provides transportation for special needs students, we’re going to make that portion of the training more robust,” said Thomas Carroll, director of transportation for the San Juan Unified School District in California, which transports 1,400 students with special needs in a district of 45,000 students.

Carroll said he has been expanding the depth of driver instruction around specific disabilities and best responses to issues on the road. “Just the spectrum of autism nowadays is so large that it’s a pretty big deal to have somebody that can provide instruction to our staff about all the different aspects of autism,” he added. “We’re just trying to work with our special education department and get as much updated information as we can.”

Looking forward to when school resumes, Carroll said he is also trying to imagine how to spread out students on small buses to adhere to social distancing guidelines without resorting to moving students one at a time. Gov. Gavin Newsom called for the new school year to start in July. But the California Department of Education said local school districts must decide for themselves when to reopen, based on the direction provided by public health officials and operational guidance that the agency was preparing to distribute this month.

One alternative to school busing is to leverage parents. The Individuals with Disabilities Act provides school districts with the option of reimbursing parents by the mile or incentivizing them with gift cards for gas. “We’re going to have it both ways. We’re going to have parents that do not want to bring their students back onto the bus because of the confinements, and parents that still need [the transportation services],” said Debbie Kinemond, assistant director of Transportation for Cherry Creek Schools in Denver.

The district initially planned to stagger bell times to reduce the number of children transported at once. Still, Kinemond said she is weighing whether transporting students in the least restrictive environment—on yellow buses, whenever possible—will be sacrificed to protect students with compromised immune systems.

In some ways, redesigning routes and buses for students with special needs will start at square one.

“I think it’s also going put us into some positions where we all do the research with the Individualized Education Program (IEP) and when we find what we feel is safe transportation, parents might have to make that hard decision, to accept the transportation or transport [their children] themselves,” Kinemond said.

There is no better time to improve communication. “This is a great opportunity for management that doesn’t always have time to check in with all of the drivers to go around and strengthen those relationships,” said Sue Shutrump, the supervisor of occupational and physical therapy for Trumbull County Educational Service Center in Niles, Ohio.

Shutrump said her team is currently providing students with physical and occupational therapy via video. Many students are also attending remote doctor appointments. With students in their homes, Shutrump said she also interacts with parents more. And as new problems arise every day, she often solicits solutions from staff. She advocates for student transporters to do the same.

“Communicate as much as you can in many different ways with your coworkers to support one another, to share creative and effective strategies that can expand upon the services we can provide to students with disabilities during this crisis,” Shutrump added.

The biggest misconception may be that student transporters can’t continue serving students with special needs, despite not driving them around. Some transportation departments are nevertheless finding ways to go the extra mile through COVID-19 closures.

While delivering meals and educational materials to students, Lake Region School in Bridgton, Maine, received a unique request. “We had a high school student with special needs who was getting his meal at different times every day, and he likes a rigid schedule and gets upset with all of the changes,” recalled Andy Madura, director of transportation, facilities and food service. “His special education teacher called us up with that concern, so now we bring his meal within a five-minute window every day. It makes him so happy, he even comes out to meet the bus.”

There may be pressure to answer issues right away, advised Anderson, who is also the director of Region 5 for the National Association for Pupil Transportation. She noted that special education teachers are also figuring out how to run a class that adheres to social distancing guidelines.

Linda Bluth, a special needs transportation consultant and expert witness for over 40 years, pointed out that student transportation leaders need to rely on their expertise, experience, community knowledge, and public health experts.

“You have to start with a plan based on safety and knowledge of IDEA compliance requirements, but know it will need to change as the circumstances change,” she said. “The plan must have regional flexibility. A school district may not be required to treat a rural area with little or no COVID-19 cases like you would an urban center. Start with your experience and knowledge of your colleagues, and above all, make sure the public health system in your jurisdiction assists with providing the basis for sound decision-making.”

Editor’s Note: As reprinted from the June issue of School Transportation News. 

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