During a normal year, an estimated 15 million students ride the bus to school every weekday in the US — about a third of all K–12 students. But health and safety precautions as a result of COVID-19 mean far fewer kids will find a seat on the bus as the new school year begins.
Transporting kids to school in a bus is suddenly fraught with peril. School districts are scrambling to answer a series of vital questions as they open their doors: how do you socially distance on a bus? Where should temperatures be screened? If masks are mandatory, what about kids with disabilities? But most of all, how do you transport millions of kids to and from school every day in the safest way possible while accepting the least amount of risk?
The Verge interviewed school bus drivers, union leaders, district transportation directors, and national experts to get a sense of how schools are responding to this enormous challenge.
As districts scramble to finalize their reopening (or not-reopening) plans, how kids get to school will depend entirely on which scheduling model they choose. States that are keeping schools closed and sticking with distance learning for the fall semester can punt the transportation question until later in the year. But federal law requires transportation for certain groups of students, namely those with disabilities and homeless children. And many districts are redirecting transportation staff to essential tasks like meal deliveries in the interim period.
But for districts like Colorado’s 27J, which represents over 18,000 students in some of Denver’s suburbs and is starting with a hybrid model of remote learning and in-person classes, the transportation question needs to be answered right now. Wayne Scott, who runs the local union that represents bus drivers, said that plans remain in flux. But initially, it will mean fewer kids per bus.
“We’re going to bus one kid per seat,” Scott told The Verge. “Typically, you’d have 65 passengers in a bus. And now we’ll have 20.”
Out of the six districts that Scott represents, 27J is the only one opening its doors to students for some in-person classes. He is still trying to figure out what this means for his drivers and their routes. Will they need more buses to accommodate social distancing mandates? Fewer buses because more parents will be opting for remote-learning only? It’s very likely that the district’s high school students will be left to find their own transportation so the buses can serve elementary and middle school students exclusively. But ultimately, Scott doesn’t know yet. And school starts on September 1st.
“Right now, it’s difficult to try to quite understand it all,” Scott said.
Bus drivers are among those workers with the highest risk of getting sick, according to an analysis of labor data by The New York Times. The Times’ analysis was based on measures of proximity and disease exposure, but it was also published in March when we knew less about how the virus spreads. Still, school bus drivers are shown to have a higher risk of exposure than other transportation workers like transit workers and ride-hail drivers, according to the Times.
Finding enough bus drivers is a perennial headache for many school districts. And it could get even harder with COVID-19. Most drivers are at an age that puts them at a higher risk of infection. While the federal government does not track the average age of bus drivers or other support staff in schools, data from the AARP suggests that, nationally, about 3 in 4 part-time school bus drivers are over age 55. Will they want to return?
Evalyn Parks, transportation director for Colorado’s Salida School District, is already dealing with a shortage of buses and drivers as well as a dearth of available cash for cleaning equipment. Electrostatic spray guns, which shoot electrostatically charged mist onto surfaces and objects for high-powered cleaning, have soared in price recently, from $700 per device to upwards of $10,000, Parks said. (The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention does not specifically recommend the use of electrostatic sprayers to clean surfaces, but one study suggests it could be an effective decontamination tool. It has been known to be used in school cleanings, according to School Transportation News.) The choices she faces are likely to be costly at a time when school budgets across the country are shrinking. She isn’t sure about her ability to enforce social distancing or to adequately clean each of her six school buses every day.
“We’re a tin box on six wheels,” Parks said. “It’s kind of hard to social distance.”
These are the kinds of conundrums facing school leaders, bus drivers, and transportation planners across the country. Bob Wagner, director of transportation for the Montour School District west of Pittsburgh, is so pressed for time trying to finalize a plan that he didn’t have time to be interviewed. “Extremely busy with the constant changes in plans by various schools,” he apologized in an email.
Other districts are less frantic. Rather, they find themselves in a state of limbo based on the decisions made by state leaders. Take California, for instance. Gov. Gavin Newsom announced in July that the state’s schools would not reopen in the fall. That left school officials like Mike Sawyer, who oversees transportation for the San Marcos Unified School District outside of San Diego, wondering when he’ll have to finalize his district’s transportation plan. “It is unknown at this time,” he told The Verge.
It’s a challenge that extends beyond the confines of the school bus itself. Michael Cordiello, president of the school bus driver union in New York City, said the city needs to develop plans to enforce social distancing not just on its buses, but at its depots as well.
“Usually, you get crowded day rooms [at the bus depot] with people pulling out their work cards for the day,” Cordiello said. “It can get very crowded.”
Right now, New York City is experiencing a particularly fierce debate over school reopenings. It is the largest school district in the nation to announce it was going to be conducting some in-person classes in the fall. But teachers and school administrators are pushing Mayor Bill de Blasio to delay the reopening, seeking more time to develop plans that address their myriad concerns. The city was once the epicenter for the coronavirus outbreak in the US, but it now has an infection rate that is among the lowest in the nation.
New York City is also unique because of its robust public transportation system, which many parents across the city use to take their kids to school. The city also has a large number of students who walk or bike to school. But transit ridership has cratered recently due to fears of viral transmission on the subway, and the city has done little to accommodate the incredible spike in cycling. Installing protected bike lanes could make it an easier and safer decision for parents who are weighing whether to take their kids to school on a bike.
At a recent press conference, de Blasio said the city’s school buses would be carrying 25 percent fewer children to allow for social distancing, and he advised those parents whose kids won’t be able to find a seat to drive them to school. Asked what happens when this increase in car traffic inevitably leads to a rise in fatal traffic crashes, the mayor said the city has no choice but to reduce capacity on its school buses.
“When you get more kids outside walking around, you’re going to have a recipe for disaster,” said Nick Sifuentes, executive director of the Tri-State Transportation Campaign. “If you have more traffic and more cars on the street, and people aren’t paying attention, especially to a child who’s too short to be seen from the vehicle, there are these ripple effects in any system that you look at.”
Even as the pandemic is making planning difficult and uncertain, all of the school and transportation leaders who spoke to The Verge said the safety and well-being of the children was the paramount concern. The pandemic is still raging across the country, and the debate over how to reopen schools safely has reached new heights in recent weeks, mostly thanks to President Trump’s insistence that schools open before Election Day. The move was directed at places where pro-Trump governors might try to open schools despite soaring COVID rates. Teachers unions are threatening “safety strikes” if schools are reopened under unsafe conditions. Amid all of the yelling and posturing, transportation remains a crucial link in the chain. Perhaps the most crucial.
“The challenge is a very big chicken and a very big egg,” said Tim Ammon, co-manager of a task force of three major student transportation organizations focused on safe reopenings. “And nobody’s really sure which is first because schools are dependent on transportation to get kids there, and transportation is dependent on knowing what the school is supposed to do to be able to figure out when to get them there.”
Ammon added, “And that is just a huge, huge challenge.”