Who will drive school buses during the pandemic?

School administrators struggle to figure out how to get kids to school while keeping bus drivers, who are often older, safe.

 

Teddie Morton has been driving students to school in Kimberly, Idaho, for 31 years. Schools there shut down in March; she started picking students up again for summer school in June.
Courtesy Teddie Morton

This story about bus drivers was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. It is republished here by permission.

For the past three months, Bridget and Jerry Boyce have taken every precaution to avoid bringing the novel coronavirus into their rural Oregon home. 

Both drive buses for the Sutherlin School District — Bridget, for the past five years; Jerry, for two. After schools closed, they chose not to participate in a meal-delivery program to students’ homes. They rarely go to grocery stores, only shop at retailers that require face masks and thoroughly disinfect themselves after each trip.

And since mid-March, the Boyces, both in their mid-50s, haven’t seen their daughter or grandchildren who live two hours away. Now, as schools in Oregon prepare to reopen this fall, they must weigh whether returning to work — and greeting the students they sorely miss — is worth the risk of exposing themselves to the novel coronavirus.

“I want to get back on that bus every day, but there’s no point in rushing things if it’s going to kill a bunch of people.”

“We all want to get back to normal,” said Jerry Boyce, who has an autoimmune disease. “I want to get back on that bus every day, but there’s no point in rushing things if it’s going to kill a bunch of people.” 

People with weakened immune systems, like Boyce, are at greater risk of getting severely sick with COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus. So too are individuals over 60. In Oregon, nearly 40% of school bus drivers fall into that vulnerable age group. But unlike teachers, bus drivers cannot do their jobs remotely to protect themselves from catching the coronavirus. 

School districts across the country have considered offering early retirement to older teachers and providing remote assignments to keep them safe. Much less attention, however, has been paid to the support staff — bus drivers, cafeteria workers and custodians — who rely on their hourly pay and can’t work from home.

Before the ongoing pandemic, many districts struggled to hire and retain bus drivers in a tight job market. Now, with looming state budget cuts and the need to fill many more bus routes amid staggered school schedules, it remains unclear how districts will pay for the increased transportation costs, whether older drivers will return to the job and what students can expect when — or if — yellow buses arrive to pick them up for school in the fall. Simply getting kids to school is shaping up to be one of the biggest reopening challenges.

School districts and states face a “mounting school personnel crisis” as employees choose not to return to work because of health fears, according to John Bailey, a visiting fellow with the American Enterprise Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank. The high unemployment rate could in some cases make it easier to hire replacements, he said, but turnover will still spell upheaval for many districts.

With bus drivers, the potential shortage could be particularly acute. 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 three in four part-time school bus drivers are over age 55. That compares with 18% of all U.S. public and private school teachers and 27% of principals, according to a recent analysis from the American Enterprise Institute.

“Folks are not thinking about it,” Bailey said of the looming bus driver shortfall. “This is the crunch that schools will face. … This will create huge challenges across the school personnel spectrum.”

School districts in the U.S. directly employ nearly 210,000 bus drivers, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Thousands more work for transportation companies that contract with public schools, colleges and private employers. School bus drivers on average earn a salary of $33,100, and it’s not uncommon for retirees and veterans to get behind the wheel to boost their pensions or Social Security payments.

In many states this spring, even with brick-and-mortar schools closed and buses deserted in parking lots, districts continued paying drivers who had to stay home. Others kept a small driving force on the clock to deliver meals or learning packets to students during remote instruction.

For those who have continued working, maintaining a safe social distance hasn’t been easy.

Teddie Morton has spent nearly 31 years driving for the Kimberly School District in Idaho. Since schools shuttered there, Morton and a coworker delivered hundreds of sack lunches to families each week.

“At some of the homes, the kids are pressed against the window, watching for the bus,” said Morton, 64. “Then they come running to the door. They’re in need of physical contact as badly as we are, but we have to explain that they need to stay back.”

A coworker in the Kimberly School District helps Teddie Morton load sack lunches onto her bus before she drives to students’ homes to deliver the meals.
Courtesy Teddie Morton

Children of all ages are at risk from COVID-19, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, but complications from the disease appear less common in children than adults. Recent studies, however, suggest that children may transmit the virus that causes it, complicating decisions about reopening schools.

On June 15, when summer school started for migrant students, Morton started picking kids up again.

The district limited her bus, which typically fits 71 students, to a dozen, and assigned seats to individuals or family units. Morton wipes the handrails after each student boards, and uses an industrial disinfectant on most of the bus once its empty.

“I’m not sure how we are going to make this work with full routes when school starts back up again in August or September.”

“I’m not sure how we are going to make this work with full routes when school starts back up again in August or September,” she said. 

As education leaders consider how to reopen schools, public health experts warn that the U.S. could see a second, potentially more dangerous wave of the coronavirus this fall. Meanwhile, COVID-19 cases are already starting to rise in some states as they begin to relax social distancing measures.

In Idaho, the number of positive cases had grown to over 3,600 by June 18, up from about 2,500 the month before. Twin Falls County, which includes Kimberly, has recorded the most COVID-19 deaths in the state.

“We are the hot spot for the state. In fact, I’m quarantined,” said Kimberly schools superintendent Luke Schroeder in early June. His wife tested positive for COVID-19 after visiting with friends in their backyard on Memorial Day.

Before his schools can welcome students back, Schroeder must get approval from the local health department and meet “minimum re-entry criteria” set by the state board of education. Similar to scaled-back guidelines from the federal government, the state board’s criteria for reopening schools make no mention of bus drivers or student transportation. But they do require schools to “identify and plan for vulnerable staff and students with a special emphasis on people over age 60.”

Even if he meets those requirements, Schroeder isn’t sure how many families will even feel that it’s safe enough to send their kids to school again. “We don’t know what we need for busing yet,” he said.

The San Antonio Independent School District will wrap seats on its buses in red cellophane to keep students from using them so that they stay six feet apart.
San Antonio Independent School District

Some states have released more explicit guidelines that may help superintendents and transportation directors plan ahead. Colorado, for example, issued 17 draft requirements for busing, including that all drivers wear face masks and that a typical 77-person bus transport just 10 to 20 students.

On June 10, the Oregon Department of Education released its first guidance on the steps schools will need to take before reopening. Drivers must wear face masks or shields, buses must be cleaned frequently and — “when feasible” — drivers and passengers should maintain at least six feet of physical distance.

In Sutherlin, if the safety measures don’t convince the Boyces to return to work, Superintendent Terry Prestianni said losing them would cut a fifth of the district’s entire transportation department. And he has struggled for years to find enough applicants for open driving positions. 

“Everything’s shut down,” Prestianni said. “If I have to get a new bus driver, how will I get them trained?”

A potential fix he’s considered: Sharing buses or drivers with another district in rural Douglas County.

For drivers anxious about getting sick, the patchwork of state guidelines has raised more questions than answers. Under some guidance, bus drivers are designated as the gatekeepers of school safety, charged with determining if a kid could be sick and whether to let them attend school. That scenario is daunting.

The Oregon guidance requires schools to screen all students for symptoms of COVID-19 before they board a bus. “This can be done visually,” the guidance reads, “and/or with confirmation from a parent/caregiver/guardian.” But some drivers said it would be difficult to get that confirmation, as parents don’t always wait at the bus stop with their children. Do drivers just leave kids who they think might be sick on the curb? 

“I want to be safe,” said Tookie Lockhard, who drives students with disabilities in Victorville, California. “And some parents send their kids to school sick. Do we make that decision to deny transportation?”

In Edwardsville, Illinois, driver Ginger Isringhausen had a different question: With no guidelines issued so far in her state, will she have to wear a face mask?

“I’m claustrophobic,” she said. “It literally triggers an anxiety response. … If they’re going to enforce that, I guess I might just have to find work somewhere else.”

For school districts, how they answer such questions comes with its own risk: The Occupational Safety and Health Administration already launched an investigation into whether Fayette County Public Schools in Kentucky provided adequate protections for workers after 19 employees in the bus garage tested positive for COVID-19 and one died. 

“That should be a bit of a warning to other schools,” said Bailey of the American Enterprise Institute.

While much remains uncertain about student transportation in the age of coronavirus, one thing seems clear — this fall, the journey kids take to school will look quite different.

During a delivery of meals to students’ homes in the San Antonio Independent School District, a young boy greets the bus driver with a sign that reads, “God bless you. Thank you for taking some of your time so that I can have some food on my table every day.”
San Antonio Independent School District

In South Texas, seats wrapped in red cellophane — with signs warning that those seats are closed —will greet students when they board buses next month for summer school. The makeshift solution will keep students at least six feet apart and satisfy a state guideline that limits buses to a maximum of 15 children, said Nathan Graf, who oversees transportation for the San Antonio Independent School District.

The first two rows of seats on each bus will remain empty to protect drivers, Graf added, and students will have to swipe an ID card before boarding, to help with contact tracing if someone gets sick later. As of late May, he said, 157 of 162 drivers in the district had already signed letters of intent to return to their jobs for the 2020-21 academic year. 

“We’re ready for that first day of school in August,” Graf said.

The changes won’t cost the district much more than in previous years, Graf said. But that may not be true for other districts: A new estimate on the cost to reopen schools pegged the price tag for transportation alone at $9.6 billion. Another cost analysis cited an average of $384,000 per district to put one aide on each bus to screen students’ temperatures before they board.

How districts plan to absorb those costs isn’t clear. With income and sales taxes plummeting, many states won’t be able to shield local schools from the financial pain. Idaho already cut $99 million from its K-12 budget, with potentially more cuts coming over the summer.

“It’s going to be a challenge.”

“It’s going to be a challenge,” said Schroeder, of Kimberly schools. “We’re building three different models, hoping to reopen in fall [and] also dealing with 5% rollbacks for next year.”

In Sutherlin, the Boyces face their own challenge. Retirement isn’t an option yet, and the district offered Bridget Boyce a custodial job as an alternative. She hasn’t accepted, so far, and Jerry Boyce may return to driving trucks, which he said is not ideal.

“We’ll just have to see how this plays out,” he said.

Aside from their own health, the Boyces worry about that of their 39-year-old son, Brian, who has severe physical and developmental disabilities and requires their care at home. Even in normal school years, Brian’s weak immune system makes the cold and flu season a risky time. His parents always keep a steroid shot nearby, just in case of emergencies.

“A simple flu can do him in,” said Jerry Boyce. “If he gets this, I don’t think he could make it. We can’t go back until it’s safe again.”

Neal Morton is the Western education reporter for The Hechinger Report, covering 10 states in the West: Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, New Mexico, Nevada, Oregon, Utah, Washington and Wyoming. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletterEmail High Country News at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor.

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