Student Well-Being What the Research Says

Here’s One Way to Keep School Buses Safe During the Pandemic

By Sarah D. Sparks — July 26, 2021 2 min read
Elementary school students sit on board a school bus after attending in-person classes at school in Wheeling, Ill., on Nov. 19, 2020. Keeping masks on and windows open can reduce the risk of COVID-19, even when students cannot keep distant, new research suggests.
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Simply transporting students safely back to campus this fall amid an ongoing pandemic can be a challenge for many school districts, but one new study offers hope that a full school bus may not be a deal-breaker.

Schools that require universal masking, ventilation, and cleaning on buses can avoid COVID-19 outbreaks even if they can’t keep students apart, finds a new study in the Journal of School Health. That could be good news for the thousands of districts that have been struggling to find enough buses and staff to drive them to comply with social distancing guidelines recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

In a normal year, an estimated 15 million students ride district buses to get to school, and transportation runs second only to staff as the biggest-ticket cost for districts. This year, those costs have skyrocketed, as CDC pandemic guidelines called for schools to keep students separated while en route.

Installment 1Transportation

Some districts, like Philadelphia, have even resorted to paying parents not to have their children take the bus to free up space.

Bus seating may not be too close for comfort

From August to March of last school year, researchers from Eastern Virginia Medical School tracked COVID-19 exposures aboard 15 school buses serving an independent school in Virginia.

The buses, which transported more than 460 students, traveled at close to their normal capacity, with two students in nearly every seat. The students were kept only 2.5 feet apart, significantly less than either the 3-foot distance recommended by the CDC this spring or the stricter 6-foot minimum that the CDC had recommended at the start of the school year. They rode from a half-hour to an hour on average, long enough to be considered at risk of infection if they were seated next to someone with the coronavirus.

All students and staff were required to wear masks on the buses, and they kept windows down to circulate as much fresh air as possible. The district also seated siblings next to each other whenever possible to reduce exposure.

Over seven months, researchers found 39 students and adults rode the buses while they were infected with the coronavirus, leading to quarantine for 52 people. Yet after tracing the infections, researchers found no one passed along or caught the virus from riding the bus.

“There was no evidence of COVID-19 transmission during bus transport, even at distances of 2.5 feet, with two-thirds of bus routes at full student capacity, and during the highest community incidence rates of COVID-19, which were 53.2 to 525.7 per 100,000 population,” they found.

The study provides yet more evidence of the importance of universal masking and ventilation in limiting the spread of the airborne virus. While the CDC has relaxed its guidelines for schools to allow fully vaccinated children and adults to go without masks, both the CDC and the U.S. Department of Education clarified that all students and staff should wear masks when riding school buses and other public transportation to school. However, the study concluded in March, before the much more contagious Delta variant became the dominant strain of the pandemic this summer.

Ronna Weber, the executive director of the National Association of State Directors of Pupil Transportation Services, said the group provides CDC guidance, but no other guidance or training for districts.

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