/Think Reopening Schools Is Tough, What About School Buses?
Think Reopening Schools Is Tough, What About School Buses?

Think Reopening Schools Is Tough, What About School Buses?


One of the hardest parts of getting children back in school this fall is physically getting them there.
Covid-19 has turned the already difficult job of running school buses into a logistical nightmare, with transportation directors scrambling to figure out how to maintain social distance, sanitize a vehicle in near-constant use and protect the health of students and drivers, many of the latter who are retirees.

In school systems with alternating schedules, planners must draw multiple routes to get different groups of students to school on different days.

Managers commonly face start dates that are a moving target, making it hard to keep drivers who typically only get paid for the hours they work.

Seating Chart

A common arrangement being used on school buses is to have one student to a seat in alternating positions.

Monitor’s seat if needed

“I hate to use the word unprecedented, but this is unique,” said Charles Hood, executive director of the National Association of State Directors of Pupil Transportation Services.

The “yellow-bus industry” has spent decades refining how to prevent crashes and only a few months on the spread of diseases, Mr. Hood said. “Quite frankly, we’re no more expert at it than anybody else.”

Over the summer a coalition of national school transportation trade groups, including Mr. Hood’s, studied how best to run a school bus program in a pandemic.

It quickly became clear that there would be no one-size-fits-all template, said study co-author Jim Regan, a Chicago-based transportation consultant. More than 25 million students typically ride 480,000 school buses a day, according to the American School Bus Council. Each of the 13,000 school districts nationwide has its own financial constraints, state and local regulations and school board desires to consider, Mr. Regan said.

A driver prepared his school bus in Winter Springs, Fla.



Photo:

Paul Hennessy/Zuma Press

Instead the Student Transportation Aligned for Return To School (STARTS) task force built a 225-item tool kit of best practices, based on a review of 50 pandemic response plans from companies such as

Walmart Inc.

and

Delta Air Lines Inc.

to agencies like the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which runs the New York City subway system.

Among the major suggestions are requiring masks and boarding the bus from back to front.

The checklist includes questions to ask when walking through the entire busing process, with suggestions ranging from installing touch-free garbage cans in the garage to developing a communications protocol if a rider tests positive.

As back-to-school season approaches, districts across the country are grappling with concerns over student and teacher safety. In Quincy, Ill., public schools are using a popular hybrid model to reopen. WSJ’s Doug Belkin visited the school days before students are set to arrive.

“Remember the movie ‘The Martian’ with Matt Damon, and he says, ‘Hey, you solve one problem and you solve the next one and you survive?’ ” Mr. Regan said. “That’s what this is. This is a risk, we’ve got to solve it, then you solve the next one.”

So far, only a handful of the 70 biggest city districts are planning to go back to in-person learning this fall, according to an analysis by The Wall Street Journal. In some states, school districts are encouraged to reduce pressure on the transportation system by not offering bus service to students who live within 1.5 miles of the school, and otherwise encouraging students to walk, bike or carpool to school.

Many of the first districts to go back to physical school are in the Sun Belt. In Pensacola, Fla., the Escambia County School District this year is transporting 13,000, or a third of the system’s 40,000 students. Typically, the district would transport 24,000, or 60%, of the students.

Students at Escambia High School in Escambia County, Fla.



Photo:

Tony Giberson/Pensacola News Journal

Transportation Director Darlene Hart said Escambia, like many districts, has long struggled to keep bus drivers on the payroll. Some of her drivers are older and decided not to come back; some took jobs in food delivery or other lines of work. The district has 230 drivers for 280 slots, she said.

Ms. Hart said she would have liked to space out children at one per window seat, or 24 riders on a 12-row bus, as many experts advise. But she said she didn’t have the luxury of staff or spare buses, so her average ridership is from 30 to 50 students in pre-assigned seats, with siblings grouped together. Some experts recommend opening windows and hatches for ventilation, but Ms. Hart said hers stay closed because the buses are air-conditioned with up-to-date circulation systems.

There are new hand-sanitizing stations at the front of the bus, plastic face shields for drivers and bottles of sanitizer to be sprayed on every touchable surface at the end of the shift, a major change from the quick sweep of the past.

Some districts are asking drivers to take temperatures as students board the bus, but Escambia isn’t among them. Ms. Hart said it would hold up traffic and create liability issues if a child wasn’t allowed onboard. Instead, if a child looks ill, the driver is to radio to the school and ask for additional screening upon arrival.

Students riding the bus to Heritage Elementary School in Lewis Center, Ohio.



Photo:

Joshua A. Bickel/Associated Press

So far the biggest challenge has been masks, Ms. Hart said, which the school district encourages but doesn’t require on the bus. Some high-school students have refused to wear them.

“We offer a mask to any student on the bus,” she said. “I’ve talked to the drivers about offering a sticker or a piece of candy if they’re good all week and wear their mask.”

Cor’Darius Jones, an Escambia County driver and maker of a series of “Mr. Bus Driver” viral videos, has amassed 200,000 views on

Facebook

of his spoof of going back to work during the pandemic. In the video, Mr. Jones wears an oversize mask and zealously sprays sanitizer on the steering console, his roster and anyone who coughs.

He has been selling a “Don’t make me use my bus driver voice!” T-shirt through his social-media channels and recently added a new design, saying “Corona is real, but so are these bills! #back2work.”

He said he felt as well-trained as he could be for the first day of school, but was still caught off-guard.

“It was definitely more stressful,” he said. “You already have the normal challenges of driving, watching mirrors, watching for students cutting up. Now I’m looking for any child that looks ill, too, leaning their head against the window, droopy.”

A screenshot of Cor’Darius Jones, aka ‘Mr. Bus Driver,’ in a video showing his plans for keeping his bus safe.



Photo:

Sherria Dexter

He immediately ditched his face shield because he said it cast glare, making him think cars were in places they weren’t. He has been used to smiling and high-fiving students as they boarded, but had to improvise.

“I try to say something to them in an exciting way, like, ‘Hey, good morning!’” he said. “Even if they don’t get to see that smile, they feel it.”

Brad Aemisseger, transportation director of the Toledo (Ohio) Public Schools, worked on the STARTS report and said bus systems will be a determining factor in whether schools open and can stay open.

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If a large percentage of drivers become infected, he said, the school system won’t be able to function. Likewise, he said if a school system reopens and has to shut down for a period of weeks, the transportation system could enter an unsustainable cycle of hiring staff and putting them on hold.

It takes time and expense to recruit and train drivers, he said. “You don’t want to put somebody behind the wheel of a 13-ton vehicle with a bunch of screaming children right out of the gate,” he said.

Most school systems don’t know yet whether plans that are good on paper will work, he said, including his own. Toledo schools postponed the start of school until Sept. 8, and will operate as remote-only until at least October.

“There’s a gap between the plan and the reality,” he said. “Because so many schools have kicked the ball down the court, a lot of districts haven’t faced that reality yet.”

Write to Valerie Bauerlein at valerie.bauerlein@wsj.com

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