School Buses Pose Social Distancing Problem as Schools Prepare to Reopen

July 16, 2020 by Gaspard Le Dem

WASHINGTON — Despite an increasing number of coronavirus cases in all but a handful of U.S. states, school districts across the country are pushing ahead with plans to resume in-person classes this fall.

With the pandemic continuing, minimizing the risk of transmission between students and staff will be a huge challenge, especially on crowded school buses.

Studies estimate that more than 25 million children ride the bus to school in America, representing roughly 55% of the nation’s K-12 student population.

But the average yellow bus isn’t designed for even the most basic social distancing. 

School buses carry somewhere between 50 and 70 students in tightly packed rows with two or three students per seat. That presents significant roadblocks to prevent the spread of the virus, potentially leaving both students and drivers at risk.

In a bid to reduce that risk, some school districts have announced they will operate buses at reduced capacity to allow more distancing between students. 

In Montgomery County, Md., school district officials have yet to make a final decision on whether in-person learning will resume this fall. But according to a preliminary plan, buses will be limited to 12 students when classes start back up, meaning buses will operate at around 25% normal capacity.

The school district says it will only provide transportation for families who “opt in”, and will prioritize elementary and middle school students.

Like many school districts, Montgomery County Public Schools has opted for a “blended” learning model this fall: students will attend in-person classes on a rotating basis, alternating days of classroom instruction with virtual learning from home.

In theory, the “blended” or “hybrid” learning model will reduce the daily number of students who require bus service. Still, it’s unclear if MCPS will be able to accommodate every student who needs transportation given that its bus fleet will be working at significantly reduced capacity.

“While we will make every effort to transport students who need school bus transportation to school, the transportation capacity is very limited due to public health guidelines,” says the draft reopening plan.

Though allowing for more social distancing on school buses seems like a positive step, there’s little evidence to show that it will be enough to keep students and drivers safe.

Michael Cordiello, the president of the Long Island Chapter of the Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) says he’s concerned that school districts and bus companies aren’t doing enough to protect drivers. “We want the children to wear masks, we want the parents who deliver them to wear masks,” says Cordiello.

The Centers for Disease Control recommends that children older than two years wear masks. But the U.S. Department of Education has not made mask-use mandatory, leaving the decision to state authorities.

In June, ATU sent a letter urging private school bus contractors to supply personal protective equipment and training for drivers during the pandemic. The letter also asked companies to install plexiglass shields around driver compartments, and to provide regular virus testing.

But Cordiello says his union’s demands have largely been ignored. “We sent this to all the companies that we represent workers at, and not one of them has responded to begin negotiation on these issues,” he said.

He stressed the importance of studying air circulation on buses so they don’t become a “test tube” for virus transmission. “I think the airflow and air exchange is the most important issue,” he said.

Meanwhile, private bus operators say the pandemic has taken a huge economic toll on their industry as customers cancel thousands of trips.

Congress is currently mulling a bailout for the transportation industry that includes funding for school bus operators. The Coronavirus Economic Relief for Transportation Services (CERTS) Act would allocate $10 billion in emergency relief funds for the industry in the form of federal grants.

“These bus operators provide essential transportation services for millions of Americans,” said Senator Jack Reed, D-R.I., who introduced the bill on July 2. “Even as bus operators take a huge hit to their bottom lines, many of these companies have been on the front lines of COVID-19 response, carrying health care workers and other essential personnel where they are needed.”

Cordiello says that more than fifteen members of ATU’s Long Island chapter have died from COVID-19 and hundreds have fallen ill. “For the most part, my membership is looking to get back to work, but they want to get back to work safely,” he said.

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