Pandemic means many school bus passengers could be out of seats

Houston Acting Superintendent Grenita Lathan announced that instruction will be fully online for the first six weeks of the school year. But even when schools reopen, only a fraction of the district’s 60,000 regular passengers will have a seat on the bus, to meet the guidelines of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention created to stop the spread of Covid- 19.

“Because physical distancing dramatically reduces the capacity of the bus, only priority, homeless, and special education students will be initially transported for classroom instruction,” said Lathan.

That surprised Lucy Forbes, a single mother whose 13-year-old daughter relies on a school bus to drive her 9 miles to her Houston high school and return home every day. “Honestly, it was ‘WHAT ?!’ “That was my initial reaction,” he said.

Forbes works full time as a solo practicing attorney and says her hours make it nearly impossible for her to drive her daughter to and from school.

“It takes me about 30 minutes to get my daughter to her campus, about 30 minutes to get to work, and then repeat that at the end of the day. So, add two hours to my day.”

Forbes said that if the Houston Independent School District can’t find a way to add buses or open seats, it will have to figure something out.

“The difference is that I have a broader spectrum of options and I am concerned about families in our communities that don’t have it,” she said. “It will affect them and their ability to work and provide.”

Lathan showed CNN a prototype of a reconfigured school bus in May. “We have tagged our seats so that we separate the students when they arrive, get on the bus and are seated.” She recognized that capacity would be substantially reduced from 76 to 83 students per bus and that it would be a challenge to recographical all of the city’s school buses.

Not enough money, not enough drivers

Last week, the CDC released updated guidelines for opening schools in the fall. The guidelines strongly encourage face-to-face instruction, citing reports that children are less likely to suffer or spread Covid-19 than adults.
The updated CDC guide for school administrators includes daily cleaning and disinfecting of buses, safe distance between passengers, and face covers.

The implementation of the bus guidelines comes at a time when school districts across the country already face severe budget constraints. For some, complying with CDC guidelines may not be feasible.

In Tampa, Florida, officials acknowledge that social distancing may not be possible. Instead, masks will be mandatory and buses will be loaded from back to front and unloaded from front to back.

In Sioux City, Iowa, the superintendent said the buses will not be full to the brim, but will not be empty enough to impose social distancing. Atlanta will limit the number of passengers on buses to 60%, Philadelphia will only allow 11-15 students to get on board and Austin, Texas, says that 12 students, separated, will be the maximum for their buses equipped with Wi-Fi.

Where some of the largest school districts in the country are in the reopening of schools

While large cities may have tens of thousands of bus passengers, smaller, rural cities often cover greater distances. The Ionia School District in Michigan covers more than 132 square miles between Lansing and Grand Rapids.

Superintendent Ron Wilson said he has more than 1,500 students who depend on bus transportation and is running out of options to meet CDC guidelines before schools open on August 26.

“The logistics of being able to transport students with that kind of confinement means that you would basically need six buses to complete a single bus route,” he said. “That certainly is problematic for us. Number one, we don’t have the additional buses, and even if we did, I don’t have enough drivers for the additional buses.”

Wilson says three of his drivers have said they will not return due to concerns about the coronavirus and how it could affect their health.

Massachusetts offers a window to the new reality

In Boston, school officials have come up with plans for three fall instructional models: in-person, home, or hybrid instruction. Regulators for the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education have encouraged educators and administrators to wait until next month before making any final decisions about the school year.

Echoing many of the CDC’s suggestions, the department’s guidance to Boston and other schools regarding school buses includes the use of masks; one child per seat, alternate sides for each row; seat assignments; and open windows.

State officials are encouraging more parents to take their children to school and the carpool because buses will have fewer seats available. This guide means that school districts may have to increase transportation capacity by adding additional routes to existing bus schedules.

The Boston Teachers Union and the Bus Union say they have not had a chance to give their opinion on what the opening of schools or the transportation of students should be like.

Andre Francois, who is part of the bus union executive team, says drivers are already in the high-risk category because of their age. “The bus is not equipped and not ready for Covid-19,” says Francois.

Boston Public Schools says CNN administrators have met with the bus drivers union once, but not since the new transportation recommendations were released.

Bus driver Robert Salley says safety modifications have yet to be made to the Boston fleet.

Robert Salley, a 39-year-old school bus driver in the Boston area and a member of the local bus drivers union, said he feels undervalued and left out of the reopening conversation.

“I get a lot of calls from drivers asking me, ‘What is the plan to start September?'” He said. “I feel bad when I tell them we don’t know anything because we as a union should be able to say something to drivers.”

CDC Delays Release of Additional Documents on Reopening of Schools

Salley said the buses have yet to be repaired in a way that makes him feel comfortable to drive, such as putting a partition around the driver.

Wilson and Forbes reflect the frustration of administrators and parents.

“It is very difficult or almost unsustainable to ask schools to do more than they are already doing, and while they are taking funds away from us,” said Wilson. “Then give us the resources we need.”

Forbes looks at the big picture: “It’s great to say that schools are open, but if we don’t have a reliable and organized, organized and structured way to send our children there, nothing else will happen.”