Managing Buses May Be the Hardest Part of Reopening Schools

A worker disinfects school buses in Nanjing in east China's Jiangsu province. Schools in the province reopened in April after a prolonged shutdown due to COVID-19.
A worker disinfects school buses in Nanjing in east China's Jiangsu province. Schools in the province reopened in April after a prolonged shutdown due to COVID-19.
—FeatureChina via AP Images
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Buses. Of all the complicated puzzles to solve for in how to reopen schools safely in the pandemic, transportation may be the most complex, district leaders say.

Millions of schoolchildren ride the school bus every day. For them, the bus is the first point of contact with schools in the morning and the last point in the afternoon, making it a crucial part of the conversation on reopening schools. Yet maintaining six feet of distance between students on a bus will be extraordinarily difficult.

“The days of two-to-three children to a seat are not going to be acceptable in the current climate,” said Curt Macysyn, the executive director of the National School Transportation Association.


School Buses and Social Distancing: A Downloadable Guide


To ensure social distancing, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has suggested one child per seat, every other row. But that would require significant modifications to the bus schedule, which would come at a steep financial cost. Here are some key considerations—and looming questions—for district and school leaders.

Put fewer students on the bus. To space out students, district leaders will need to purchase or rent more buses, make multiple runs, or stagger route times to align with a staggered school schedule—or a combination of all three. This will be a huge expense, in both personnel costs and the costs of additional vehicles, at a time when most schools won’t be able to dodge budget cuts. The lack of buses to make multiple runs will drive districts’ scheduling decisions.

District and school leaders are confronting difficult, high-stakes decisions as they plan for how to reopen schools amid a global pandemic. Through eight installments, Education Week journalists explore the big challenges education leaders must address, including running a socially distanced school, rethinking how to get students to and from school, and making up for learning losses. We present a broad spectrum of options endorsed by public health officials, explain strategies that some districts will adopt, and provide estimated costs.

Read Part 1: The Socially Distanced School Day

District leaders are trying to think creatively about how to reconfigure their bus schedules. Scott Muri, the superintendent of Ector County Independent school district in Odessa, Texas, said he is considering running school buses all day, like public transit buses—constantly picking up and dropping off students. However, leaders will have to mesh their transportation plans with their school scheduling models.

Districts must also think about social distancing at drop-off and pick-up points, and possibly stagger those processes to avoid large gatherings of students.

Keep bus assignments as static as possible. The has recommended that districts assign drivers to a single bus and a specific route to minimize the number of drivers who use a vehicle. Districts should also assign students to a single bus. If someone tests positive for COVID-19, the exposure to possible infection is limited to a smaller group and contact tracing is easier to conduct.

Getting enough drivers. Before the COVID-19 crisis, more than 90 percent of school districts reported bus driver shortages, according to a survey by the National Association for Pupil Transportation. One-third of those districts described the shortage as “desperate or severe.”

Now, superintendents are worried that the shortage will be exacerbated, especially if they must add more buses to complete additional routes. Also, many school bus drivers are older, superintendents say. Since people older than 65 are at higher risk for severe illness due to COVID-19, district leaders fear that many of their drivers might not feel comfortable coming back to work.

Provide personal protective equipment. Drivers should wear masks and gloves. Many public transit systems have installed plexiglass shields around the driver’s seat, which school districts could also do. (A Colorado district is leaning toward separating the driver’s seat from the students with a clear plastic shower curtain.) Districts might also want to require students to wear masks while riding the bus. The driver and passengers should have access to hand sanitizer that they can apply when entering and exiting the bus.

The buses will also have to be thoroughly and frequently disinfected.

Adequate air flow. Experts say that fresh air and a higher ventilation rate can dilute the presence of the virus. If possible, drivers should open windows and use fans to increase the circulation of outside air. However, it’s important to consider potential safety risks associated with open windows, including for students with asthma.

Enforcement of social distancing. Officials can place tape on the bus seats to mark where students should sit, but they should also prepare for the reality that students might not listen when the bus is in motion.

“We have to understand what the children’s behaviors are, COVID or no COVID,” Macysyn said. “I just think in certain age groups, to think that there’s going to be no contact is not exactly realistic.”

Some district leaders are considering adding bus aides or attendants to enforce the rules, which would come at an additional cost. The Missouri School Boards’ Association also suggested that districts tap volunteers to serve as social distancing monitors.

Encourage students to find alternative methods of transportation. The Missouri School Boards’ Association has suggested that districts consider minimizing their transportation zone and not providing transportation to students that live within three and a half miles from their school building. Instead, the association suggested districts provide bicycle racks and locks to encourage students to ride their bikes to school and provide additional crossing guards to encourage students walking to school.

A significant number of students do already use private means to get to school. However, this could pose equity and safety concerns, as some parents might not be able to drive or escort their children to school.

Consider alternatives for medically vulnerable students. The Missouri School Boards’ Association suggested reserving a specific seat for a student who might be at higher-risk for COVID-19. That seat would not be used for any other student during the day, and staff would take special precautions to disinfect it. Alternatively, the district might choose to transport high-risk students in separate vehicles or pay parents or staff members to transport them separately.

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