In the end, when the ashes of COVID – 19 have been sifted through and its epitaph is written, the ill-effects of the coronavirus will not be hard to find.
The onset exposed some underlying blemishes of the country’s collective educational system ranging from technological inequities to bus driver shortages made more critical by its health threat to that vulnerable population. This made the pandemic appear a symptom of an institutional disease that manifest itself in the nationwide shortage of drivers. That evidence is well documented.
The driver shortage in Massachusetts was so acute the Associated Press reported that Gov. Charlie Baker issued an order that 250 national guardsmen undergo training as school van drivers for school districts in the communities of Lowell, Chelsea, Lawrence and Lynn.
Also last month in Lee County, Florida, bus drivers reportedly were afraid to report to work for health reasons after one of their fellow drivers died from COVID. Seven others were hospitalized and 19 were quarantined.
Meanwhile, police in Montgomery County, Maryland, reported that the situation around county schools was a perfect storm of traffic jams that gridlocked some county schools as an increasing number of parents were forced to drive their children to school and pick them up because of the bus driver shortage.
This was the case despite pleas from the Montgomery County Department of Transportation’s Safe Routes to School program for parents to organize “walking school buses” so small children could safely walk to schools in their neighborhoods under adult supervision.
Panicked school districts offered pay of up to $28 an hour to attract drivers. Other districts and contractors offered signing bonuses up to $5,000 for bus driver candidates, but to no avail. This, amid reports that contractors were poaching drivers from school districts with seductive signing bonuses.
Some school districts paid parents to drive their kids to school while others did so voluntarily. They either opposed mask mandates for bus riders or they feared for the health of their children because the buses were so crowded that social distancing was nearly impossible. Depending upon the severity of the shortages, transportation directors and office staff with CDLs filled in as substitute drivers.
But COVID–19 also resurrected a few alternatives that may have been frowned upon initially as too strenuous, inconvenient or potentially disruptive to many school communities. One alternative typically employed when school bus routes must be consolidated or cut is the increase of walk distances to determine ridership eligibility. Students must live far enough away from their home school — for example, at least a half-mile for elementary students, a mile for middle school and a mile and a half for high school — to take the school bus.
When in-person learning returned this year, many transportation departments were swamped by the tsunami-like influx of students needing to get to school amid restrictive rules regarding social distancing on the buses. So, for some school districts, the number of students who lost school bus privileges because their walk distance to school increased, while others changed little or not at all.
“Yes, more kids are walking to school than before [COVID],” commented Gingi Borg, supervisor of safety and training for the Newport-Mesa Unified School District in Costa Mesa, California, adding that the elimination of “courtesy pickups” increased their walking numbers.
“We really started enforcing our non-bus zones,” she continued. “Prior to that, we were transporting students that lived within the walking zone. Last year, we consolidated some bus stops because of the pandemic and because of a shortage of drivers. We’re not as bad off as some other districts, but everybody here is driving except for the director.”
Newport-Mesa enforces a “no bus zone” for elementary school students who live within three-quarters of a mile from campus. For middle school, the distance is 1.5 miles from school, and for high school it’s two miles.
Borg added that participation in the federal Safe Routes to School program and the cooperation of the city has helped ease the change. “We have a lot of support from the city with crossing guards, and the safe routes to school are marked with arrows,” she said. “Having crossing guards at key locations is really important. The city supplies the crossing guards. Parents are also driving their kids to school.”
Routing software companies are watching the situation closely.
“We’ve definitely seen a decrease in the number of students riding the bus, that’s for sure,” remarked Antonio Civitella, president and CEO of Transfinder. “Parents are still worried because it’s nearly impossible to honor the social distancing recommendations on the school bus. Some parents are saying, they’ll just drive their kids to school.”
Civitella offered a personal example at his neighborhood school, where the gridlock created by parent vehicles meant more than a 30-minute wait to pick up children. “I don’t think [parents] are aware of the driver shortage,” he added. “They just know that the buses are delayed, so they’re just saying I will bring my own child to school.”
Sonia Mastros, president of Orbit Software, said the distances students must walk have also increased. “They definitely increased the walking distances to conform with state law to qualify for reimbursement for kids, and they don’t have the drivers needed to drive all the kids,” Mastros said. “The driver shortage is insane. And because of the social distancing, they need more buses.”
Mastros pointed out there was a driver shortage before COVID and now with social distancing some districts can’t have as many kids on the bus and must use two buses for every one bus it used to operate.
She said that even with the signing bonuses and increased pay for drivers, they’re still not getting the applicants. “I don’t know how they are going to deal with this. There are even some school districts that are offering to pay parents so much per month to take their child to school.”
Greg Marvel, president and CEO of TransTraks, said 25 to 30 percent of his company’s 300 clients have increased their walking zones because service to some schools have been eliminated.
“Some districts have stopped busing kids entirely to some schools because they have a shortage of bus drivers and limited load capacity because of COVID,” Marvel said. “If you have one to a seat, you’ve got 28 kids on a bus. You’ve got to modify the runs and make more than one run. I have one district with 50 vacant driver positions, a smaller district with 28 routes has 20 vacancies. Another district with 15 routes and 8 vacancies.”
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Mike McClure, transportation director for Fayetteville Schools in Arkansas, said he’s noticed little change in the local walking numbers, but if there is it’s by choice. “We haven’t altered our walk zones based on COVID,” McClure said. “And the walk zones we have are based more on geographical limitations for our buses and they are on a school-by-school basis.”
For example, McClure pointed out an elementary school in a rural area with steep, mountainous terrain and streets too narrow for most buses. “Because of that we only take buses up there that we are required to take, like our special needs buses,” McClure explained. “We don’t take regular education buses up there, so that is a walk zone.”
McClure further explained that even though the district does not participate in a Safe Routes to School program, safety is the overriding determinant of walk zones. “We don’t do it by distances but what we’ve determined to be safe walk areas,” McClure said. “Even if [students] live just a short distance from school, we don’t require students to cross four-lane highways. We determine in neighborhoods where it is safe for students to walk, and even though their address might be close to a school we do not want students to cross dangerous roads to get there.”
The number of students walking to school in the Othello School District in eastern Washington has not increased, according to transportation director Marian Shade. “That number has stayed pretty much the same,” Shade said. “If anything, the ridership on our buses decreased minimally because of the fear of COVID. We have a lot of parents that drive their kids to school and a lot of kids that walk, and then we have those that drive in from [rural areas]. The numbers are much the same as pre-COVID. The distances have stayed the same. The driver shortage has not had any impact on number of kids walking to school.”
Shade said the district is required to update its Safe Routes to School maps as often as possible and provide them to schools and to parents. “We provide a safe route to school map, so they know the streets that have crosswalks and sidewalks,” Shade said. “Those are the streets we try to use.”
Shade, who also drives a route because of the driver shortage, said the district coordinates with city to establish safe routes. “We have more safety patrols around the schools and our city is actually working on plans to create safer streets,” she said. “The city will conduct a pilot program of mini traffic circles, small roundabouts and speed bumps to slow traffic down on the side streets.”