In a Pandemic, Who Gets to Ride the Bus? And What About Those Who Don't?

School buses sit parked in a lot as schools remain closed due to the coronavirus in Providence, R.I.
School buses sit parked in a lot as schools remain closed due to the coronavirus in Providence, R.I.
—David Goldman/AP
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Fewer students will be able to ride the bus to school due to COVID-19 precautions when the 2020-21 school year begins. That has left school systems scrambling to find fair and consistent ways of determining who will receive district transportation—and how to meet the needs of students who won’t.

While states’ recommendations on school transportation vary, many follow guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that calls for disinfecting surfaces, sitting a single student in each seat, and leaving alternating rows empty to avoid crowding, ideally keeping students a recommended 6 feet apart.

“There are not enough buses on the assembly lines to meet the CDC guidelines,” said Brian Creasman, superintendent of the Fleming County, Ky., school district.


The "Walking School Bus": A Downloadable Guide


And, even if the districts around the country had the funds to buy enough buses, it’s unlikely they’d find drivers to run those routes, he said. Driver shortages are a persistent issue for schools, even in years without the complications of a pandemic.


About 33 percent of students ages 5 to 17 traveled to school on school buses in 2017, the most recent federal data show. Reliance on school transportation varies widely between states and districts: In California, about 15 percent of students ride school buses, compared to about 85 percent in some Northeastern states, said Mike Martin, the executive director for the National Association of Pupil Transportation.

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
Read Part 2: Scheduling the COVID-19 School Year
Back to Part 3: Tackling the COVID-19 Transportation Problem

About 80 percent of the rural Fleming County district’s 2,300 students typically ride the bus. But Creasman made a tough call this summer: The district will offer bus transportation only to special education students with individualized education programs that include it, to homeless students receiving services through a federal program, and to a small number of others.

The district has 30 buses, and it would probably take 22 more and some creative scheduling to transport all of the children who typically ride, Creasman said. That assumes schools open fully in-person on Aug. 24, which is his goal.

The district is still finalizing its transportation plans to determine exactly how many children will ride. When Creasman shared the plans in a weekly web posting for parents, some said they understood, while others worried about juggling rides to school with their work schedules.

Others said they wouldn’t let their children use school buses because the district would require masks for riders, which have been mandated by the state. The district doesn’t plan to require masks in school buildings, opting instead to seat students far apart and hold some classes outdoors.

“Unfortunately, Washington, I think has made [masks] into a political issue,” Creasman said.

Administrators of the Poudre School District, which spans 1,800 square miles in northern Colorado, have also concluded that they will have to reduce the number of students who ride buses this year. The Colorado Department of Education’s preliminary guidance suggests a bus that typically holds up to 77 students may transport as few as 10 with students spaced 6 feet apart.

An Unsolved Puzzle: Students Who Rely on Public Transportation

While federal data show public transportation is the least common way U.S. students get to school, it plays an outsized role in some urban school districts, adding another puzzle piece to their reopening plans.

Some large school systems—like New York City and Boston—provide bus and subway passes to all or a portion of their students as an alternative to school-provided transportation.

And, in cities where significant numbers of students attend charter schools and schools of choice that may be far from their homes, access to public transportation can be an equity issue.

But, while districts may cooperate with public transportation authorities, they don’t have any say over their operations. As more workers have stayed home, many metropolitan agencies have cut back on transit routes and limited capacity to allow for adequate distance between riders.

And many public transportation systems have plans to adjust their schedules based on phased reopening plans set by local authorities. That means availability may fluctuate depending on virus rates, making it difficult for education leaders to plan.

Several urban districts contacted by Education Week in June said they were still evaluating how these challenges will affect their students, whether their schools will open fully in-person, and how to respond.

Unable to find a workable plan, the district informed most families in June that, under the current guidance, they would need to find alternative forms of transportation. Homeless students, students with disabilities, and children in the foster care system will still receive school transportation, district communications director Madeline Noblett said.

It all adds up to a logistically difficult—and emotionally fraught—task for administrators. Here are seven ideas and approaches to help smooth the way.

Identify Opt-Outs Before Making a Bus Plan

  • Find out which families don’t want to use district transportation amid continued concerns about COVID-19 transmission

The Poudre district will survey families of its 30,000 students to see who would want to use buses should more spots become available or if state and local health officials recommend relaxing distancing guidelines. In that event, the district will allow another “tier” of students to ride, based on priorities like transporting students from low-income homes, Noblett said.

“We would always want to be able to transport all of the kids, but in the event these guidelines hold, this is how we move forward,” she said.

Before Fleming County announced its decision, some families indicated in surveys that they wouldn’t use district transportation because of masks and other precautions.

Whatever their reason, districts should identify families who want to opt out through parental surveys. That can simplify transportation planning by giving a clearer count of potential riders.

Prioritize Special Populations

  • Give vulnerable students first crack at district-provided transportation, and assure their legal needs are met.

The federal McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act, for example, requires schools to transport students experiencing homelessness to their school of origin, even if they move outside of its attendance boundaries. Similarly, the Every Student Succeeds Act requires districts to provide school stability for students if they move to a new household placement.

Many children who receive services through the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act have transportation requirements included in their IEPs. And most districts are prioritizing transporting students with disabilities regardless to ensure they are given support to recover from lost learning time experienced during sudden school closures in the spring.

Students from low-income households may lack alternatives to school transportation or they may live in neighborhoods without safe walking routes to school. Districts with capacity may prioritize these students in their busing plans.

Washington state’s Highline district is still finalizing its plans, but Superintendent Susan Enfield is concerned that some children from low-income families will be left behind if she doesn’t find a way to safely transport most students on buses. Health officials have told her she can seat more students per bus if she requires masks, she said. (Enfield is on the board of Editorial Projects in Education, the publisher of Education Week.)

“It’s fundamentally an equity issue,” Enfield said. While some families may prefer to transport their own children, “others who don’t have that option are going to be forced to take the bus or stay home from school.”

Alter Transportation Zones

  • Expand the minimum distance students must live from their schools to qualify for district-provided transportation.

Missouri recommends leaders “consider minimizing the district’s transportation zone” by not busing students who live within three and a half miles from the school building, the maximum zone allowed under state law.

Encourage Walkers

  • Find ways to support families who choose to have their students walk.

Kentucky’s reopening guidance urges districts to develop age-sensitive guidelines about how far students can be expected to walk to school, setting a longer distance for high school students. School administrators also should encourage safe walking practices, including social distancing, state guidance says.

Kentucky is one of a few states that have recommended the use of “walking school buses,” through which designated adults walk children to school on preplanned routes, picking up additional walkers at “stops” along the way. Such strategies have been used in districts throughout the country in previous years to help students travel through dangerous or traffic-heavy routes to school. Several Maine districts have created walking school buses in recent years as part of a state effort to tackle chronic absenteeism.

Schools may also encourage biking by placing additional racks in front of their building.

Encourage Car Pools

  • Use district messaging and direct outreach to families to help jump-start car pools, and support families already coordinating them. This can come with its own complexities. For example, because social distancing is not possible in a car, car pool organizers should strive to limit their rides to a fixed group of children to reduce the risk of spreading the virus, district leaders said.

Reduce the Need for Transportation

  • Explore altering attendance boundaries and policies to encourage children to attend schools closer to home.

Providence, R.I., schools proposed in June requiring students to attend their neighborhood schools, facing some intense pushback from the public. The district typically allows a portion of its students to select schools outside of their zoned attendance boundaries.

Maximize Bus Capacity

  • Sit siblings together in the same seat. Colorado’s guidance says this could double the number of riders in some areas.
  • Seat children from the same classroom cohorts together. The CDC has recommended schools keep the same groups of students together throughout the day, minimizing their interactions with others to reduce the spread of the virus.
  • Require masks on buses.
  • Keep windows open for more ventilation.


School Buses and Social Distancing: A Downloadable Guide


Get Creative on Scheduling

  • Stagger start times and bus routes by elementary, middle, and high school grade levels. This could allow buses to make more than one run a day and also give time for drivers and staff to disinfect seats between each use.

But that can be logistically challenging, requiring transportation planners and school administrators to reroute buses, change school start times, and build hours into schedules for additional cleaning.

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