Special Report
School & District Management

Solving the Student-Transportation Conundrum

By Corey Mitchell — July 08, 2020 9 min read
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School buses are the safest way to travel to school: It’s an axiom that transportation advocacy groups and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration have long touted. But getting 15 million students to school safely has taken on a whole new meaning in the age of coronavirus.

There are many twists and turns that complicate the roadmap for reopening schools but figuring out how to get students to school may be the most complex.

With the uncertainty surrounding school scheduling and federal, state, and local guidelines that call for some combination of physical distancing, health screenings, and personal protective equipment to curb the spread of the novel coronavirus, school leaders planning for a return to in-person instruction face five crucial questions.

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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

Why do students need transportation? Millions of students travel by bus to school daily as a matter of convenience or necessity. Federal law requires transportation for certain groups of students, namely students with disabilities and homeless children. Many students who receive special education services have transportation written into their Individualized Education Program, or IEP. Under the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act, homeless students are entitled to transportation between school and their shelters or temporary housing.

Who goes to school in person? Schools must figure out which students will need transportation. Some districts will focus on getting students who could benefit most from in-person instruction, such as English-language learners and students with disabilities, back first. Other districts have already pledged in-person learning for all students—but not all of them may want bus service or even still be eligible for it under new or revised policies established during the pandemic.

What is the transportation budget? Buying or leasing more buses and hiring extra drivers—if you can find either—could be a quick-fix solution, especially in smaller districts that aren’t transporting thousands of students per day. But with districts facing a budget crunch for the 2020-21 school year, figuring out where to invest funds could force some tough decisions. In the Toledo, Ohio, schools, a series of scenarios laid out for split-days classes—where students attend classes daily or several times per week in shifts—would at the very least double the district’s fuel budget and drive up labor and cleaning costs and wear and tear on buses.

When must students report to school? Much of the transportation decision-making hinges on this question. With few districts thus far settling on an all-or-nothing approach—either everyone returns to school or no one does—transportation directors are in a bind. Each scheduling scenario presents a realm of possibilities and risks in a new reality where keeping students safe takes on a whole new meaning. Several experts summed up the question about scheduling in one word: overwhelming.

Where will students sit? Guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends six-foot distancing on school buses. Adhering to those guidelines would drastically reduce the seating capacity of most buses; a large school bus can sit between 50 and 72 students. To fit more students on buses, districts could allow siblings to share seats and find other ways to tweak the CDC guidance, but likely will not be able to solve the problem altogether. For the foreseeable future, schools will no longer be packing two or three students in each bus seat.

Kentucky is among the states recommending that its districts poll parents to gauge how many students will need bus service when schools reopen: Some families may choose to transport students to school or have them walk until physical distancing on the school bus is no longer required.

Here’s a look at the options that schools face and how they might affect schools’ transportation choices:

Option 1: All Remote Learning

In parts of the country hit hardest by coronavirus, schools may decide to stick with remote learning. In that scenario, buses would remain in service to deliver meals and instructional packets to students and serve as Wi-Fi hot spots to help families and communities without reliable internet access.

Even if in-person classes resume, schools will likely continue to use buses to deliver food and learning materials since some students either can’t or won’t return to physical school buildings when classes resume because of underlying health conditions, severe physical disabilities or parents refusing to send their children back until there is a COVID-19 vaccine.

Option 2: A Return to Full-Time, In-Person Instruction

For school districts that take this route, there is also some acknowledgement that they plan to either disregard or modify the CDC guidelines on physical distancing or develop plans that will allow them to pack more students on buses than the federal government recommends.

There simply are not enough school buses for hundreds or thousands of school districts to double, triple, or even quadruple the size of their fleets. Demand would far outpace supply—if districts had the money. Running twice or triple the number of routes with the same number of buses would lead to a spike in the fuel budget, along with an increase in maintenance and cleaning costs.

Districts will evaluate, and possibly extend, school walking zones. That would allow districts to reduce the number of students they’re required to bus to school by cutting out some families from transportation eligibility.

Then there is the matter of trying to find people who can drive the buses. To even keep their staffing at pre-COVID-19 levels as older workers leave, districts would have to ramp up their recruitment and retention efforts. But more on that in a bit.

Option 3: Hybrid Scheduling

A mix of online and in-person schooling could be the best option for districts looking to maintain physical distancing guidelines while getting students into classrooms as often as possible.

Leaders in the Toledo Public Schools have plotted out several return-to-school scenarios. A split-day schedule, where elementary school students attend class in the morning and older students attend school in the afternoon, would double costs for cleaning, fuel, labor, and maintenance, all overruns that would bust the district’s $15 million transportation budget. With a six-day Monday through Saturday school week, where students have in-person instruction three days per week, Toledo’s costs for fuel and labor would rise roughly 20 percent, not nearly as high as the split-day schedule.

For superintendents, it could be the best of both worlds: balancing the need to address student learning loss with the reality that the country is still in the midst of a pandemic.

But for transportation directors across the country, a split return to school presents a logistical nightmare. That’s why experts say transportation directors must be included in discussions about the return to school—and not just handed a schedule and told to make things work after other school administrators make the call on how to safely resume school.

Routes will have to be reconfigured, traditional schedules tossed out the window, and budget-busting new safety measures adopted.

Districts would incur new expenses at a time when most schools are staring down budget cuts at worst, or stable funding or slight increases under a best-case scenario.

Buying or renting buses and doubling and tripling up on bus runs will add costs. Districts will also need to hire more staff to drive buses to and from schools and monitor students while they’re on board.

Without additional buses, many students would be limited to one or two days of in-school instruction—if districts can find people to get them there.

For years, districts have faced severe driver shortages and the threat of the coronavirus may shrink the already shallow hiring pool: Older adults and people of any age who have underlying medical conditions may be at higher risk for more serious complications from COVID-19. That could mean that retirees who help fill out the driver rosters in some places, or even serve as on-call replacements, may be less likely to take on those jobs if their health is at risk.

Here’s a checklist for schools to consider for their bus operations:

Before Boarding the Bus

  • Clearly communicate through signs on the bus and letters home to parents that students should not board buses if they are experiencing COVID-19 symptoms.
  • Parents should screen their children for symptoms before they head to the bus stop, as recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics. The Wake County, N.C., schools will ask parents to complete and sign a daily screening form that the child brings to the bus.
  • Ask drivers or aides to conduct visual wellness checks, take temperatures with no-touch thermometers, or ask screening questions at the bus stop. The California Department of Education recommends that schools assign bus aides to administer the screenings. Under initial guidance issued by the Marietta, Ga., school system, students with temperatures at or above 100.4 degrees Fahrenheit would not be allowed to board buses.
  • Have students sanitize their hands, preferably with fragrance-free hand sanitizer, upon boarding.
  • Determine whether there is adequate space for 6-foot distancing at bus stops. To ensure proper distancing, encourage parents to monitor their children until buses arrive.
  • Develop a plan for symptomatic students. Some districts have plans to reserve quarantine seats to transport those students to school until they can be picked up by a parent or guardian. Under initial guidance issued by the Wake County, N.C., schools, symptomatic students would be barred from boarding buses. The bus would remain with the student until pickup by a parent or until another district employee arrives to supervise the student.
What to Do When a Student Fails a Health Screening: A Downloadable Guide

On the Bus

  • Clean and disinfect frequently touched surfaces, including seatbacks, seat belt and lap-shoulder belt buckles, handrails, and door handles on school buses at least daily—and between routes if possible.
  • Require face coverings to be worn when students cannot maintain physical distancing.
  • Establish seating charts to designate which seats are available for use. Riders should be seated from the rear of the bus forward to prevent students, as much as possible, from walking past each other.
  • Consider requiring cloth face masks if students are not seated according to the CDC guidance that recommends one child per seat, every other row.
  • Ensure drivers have surplus face masks on board to provide to symptomatic students.
  • Weigh the pros and cons of opening windows, which could ventilate the air, but also trigger seasonal allergy or asthma-related symptoms.
Screening Students for COVID-19: A Downloadable Questionnaire

Exiting the Bus

  • Determine whether there is adequate space at the unloading zone to maintain physical distancing.
  • Have students exit by row, from front to back, to maintain physical distancing.
  • For drop-off routes, have students board the bus in the order they will be dropped off. Students who board the bus first head to the back and are the last be dropped off at their stop. Students who board the bus last sit near the front and are the first to be dropped off at their stop.
  • If traveling with a symptomatic student, communicate to staff that the student may be ill and should be taken to a school isolation room or health-care waiting area upon entering the building.

Education Week spoke to many experts for this installment. In alphabetical order, they are: Brad Aemisegger, director of transportation, Toledo Public Schools; Tim Ammon, owner, Decision Support Group, and co-manager, STARTS (Student Transportation Aligned for Return To School) Task Force; Linda Bluth, transportation consultant, Maryland State Department of Education; Curt Macysyn, executive director, National School Transportation Association; Kevin Rubenstein, assistant superintendent of student services, Elmhurst, Ill., Community Unit School District 205; Steve Simmons, president, National Association for Pupil Transportation.

Documents: Stronger Together: A Guidebook For the Safe Reopening of California’s Public Schools; Reopening 2020-2021, Wake County, N.C., Public School System; Student Learning Options and Safety Protocols: Marietta, Ga., City Schools; COVID-19 Considerations for Re-Opening Schools: Pupil Transportation, Kentucky Department of Education; Going Back to School Before the Kids: A Return to School Roadmap, National Association of Pupil Transportation; Poudre, Colo., School District, Transportation FAQ for 2020-21; Poudre, Colo., School District, Transportation FAQ 2020-21; National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, School Bus Safety; Questions and Answers on Serving Children With Disabilities Eligible for Transportation, United States Department of Education; National Center for Homeless Education: McKinney-Vento Law Into Practice Brief Series Transporting Children and Youth Experiencing Homelessness; Poudre, Colo., School District, Transportation FAQ 2020-21; U.S Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: What Bus Operators Need to Know About COVID-19; American Academy of Pediatrics, COVID-19 Planning Considerations: Guidance for School Re-entry.

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