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Social distancing on a school bus? Industry leaders in Minnesota explore options for a safe return

“Social distancing on a school bus, we feel, is going to be a challenge,” said Shelly Jonas, executive director of the Minnesota School Bus Operators Association, adding she and her colleagues are more interested in having students wear masks and in enhancing cleaning routines.

school buses
MinnPost file photo by Bill Kelley
If in-person learning for all students resumes this fall, the state Department of Education asks schools to look at adding routes or reducing bus capacity to keep riders farther apart.
These past few weeks, school leaders have been busy planning for three possible scenarios for the start of the upcoming school year: a return to school buildings, a return to distance learning, or some hybrid of the two formats. 

The state Department of Education has promised to narrow it down to one course of action. But that announcement won’t come until the last week of July, by which point state officials hope to have a clearer sense of how the COVID-19 pandemic may play out this fall. 

For now, the department has issued planning guidance for every segment of the school day, including how bus rides to and from school should look different.

Additions like plastic partitions, as seen now at some grocery stores, or any other physical alteration to the vehicles are unlikely, say those who oversee school bus fleets. But they are busy exploring options for lowering bus occupancy — so student passengers can socially distance on their way to and from school — enhancing sterilization practices, and shoring up teams of drivers, which have been in short supply for years. 

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If in-person learning for all students resumes this fall, the state Department of Education asks schools to look at adding routes or reducing bus capacity to keep riders farther apart. Maintaining the recommended 6 feet of social distancing may not be feasible, the guidance notes, but things like seating families together and loading the bus from back to front are still advised. 

Shelly Jonas
Shelly Jonas
If the school year starts off in a hybrid format, the guidance prioritizes strict social distancing. It also says buses should not exceed 50 percent capacity, leaving room for one empty seat between each student, or a household of students seated together.

“Social distancing on a school bus, we feel, is going to be a challenge,” said Shelly Jonas, executive director of the Minnesota School Bus Operators Association, adding she and her colleagues are more interested in having students wear masks and in enhancing cleaning routines. “If you’re skipping rows, then you’re talking about 13 students. It gets small very fast.”

Empty seats, face masks

Jonas has already pulled together some new protocol for her drivers. The company she leads operates school buses in the Annandale, Maple Lake and Buffalo school districts.

They’ll be taking their temperature prior to boarding and signing off on a form confirming they haven’t been in contact with anyone who’s sick. They’ll also be wearing masks and gloves, and have been advised to keep the seat immediately behind them empty. 

Bethany Schubert, soon-to-be co-owner of Trobec’s Bus Service, has been in conversations with the St. Cloud and Sartell school districts as they plan for all three back-to-school scenarios. She says her drivers will be required to wear masks, as will students who ride the bus. And in addition to lots of hand sanitizer on the bus, she says they’ll be wiping everything down with disinfectant between routes — an added step that means they won’t be able to run routes back-to-back, as they normally would. 

“We are willing to do those things to take care of our employees, students and communities,” she said. “But it’s an extra step we’ll need to think about.”

Additionally, all of her employees will complete an official program this summer that goes into detail about the new cleaning products and procedures. Upon completion, buses will be marked with a clean seal of approval. 

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Adding one more layer of assurance, she says they’ve also purchased a fogging machine that they’ll use to disinfect buses on a 25-day rotation. 

Ann Casey, owner of the Park Adam Transportation — which runs routes for the St. Louis Park, Edina and Bloomington school districts, as well as for a handful of private schools like Benilde St. Margaret — says her drivers were able to roll out a number of new cleaning and social distancing protocols over the summer, while providing transportation to YMCA summer camp students. 

Bethany Schubert
Bethany Schubert
Before boarding, her drivers take their temperature and take the official COVID-19 screening questionnaire. They all enter the main office through one door and exit through another, and all wear masks. 

On the bus, they’re only seating up to 24 students. Each route has one designated pick-up location, with a camp staff member conducting health screening with campers before they board. Once cleared, they file on back-to-front, with the driver waiting outside of the bus to minimize contact. “We’re into week four. So far, so good. But it’s really contained, very controlled,” Casey said in an interview last week, noting this fall will prove more challenging as routes and passenger lists increase. 

Overseeing bus routes in the Minneapolis Public Schools district, which operates an in-house fleet of buses and contracts with private companies as well, Lisa Beck, executive director of transportation, says that, per Mayor Jacob Frey’s emergency order, face masks for both drivers and students will be required. If students show up without a mask, they’ll be provided one before boarding. They’re also tightening up record keeping for each bus route, so they can contact trace in the event of a positive COVID-19 case.

The district already operates on a five-tier system, so adding additional tiers to space out passengers doesn’t seem likely. Rather, Beck says, she and the rest of the admin team are looking at how to best redistribute students, so as to utilize every square foot of each building. “The discussion internally is we don’t know where families will land on wanting to drive their kids to school, versus using transportation,” she said.  

Drivers in demand

Over 60 percent of the Minneapolis district’s bus routes are driven by contracted employees, Beck says. As a safety net, she’s pushing to get more district employees to become licensed drivers, so they could step in when needed. 

Getting backup drivers — not to mention primary drivers, who are in short supply year over year — certified in time, however, may prove especially challenging this summer, given the DMV testing backlog during the pandemic. 

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Prospective drivers need to take and pass a written content knowledge test. But Jonas says the thought of having to show up early at a DMV and wait in line for hours is enough of a deterrent for many. And there’s no special treatment, or call-ahead scheduling, for school bus drivers. They have to wait in the same queue as student drivers and everyone else. 

“As we move into August, we’re preparing for even worse scenarios,” Jonas said. 

Schubert, who is looking to hire 20 more drivers this summer, has already lost prospective drivers over this inconvenience at the very start of the employee pipeline. “ The average person isn’t going to want to deal with that,” she said. “We’ve found some people that just said, ‘Forget it. I’ll find another job.’”

She says her hiring goal is steep. But she needs about 12 drivers to fill open routes, plus backup drivers who can step in when someone gets a fever and can’t drive. If the findings of a recent employee survey she sent out play out, she may be scrambling to hire even more drivers before summer ends. “Twenty-three percent of respondents said they’re very concerned about coming back this fall because they’re higher risk,” she said, noting a number of her drivers are older. 

Casey says that when the pandemic hit this past spring, it only caused minor disruptions to her team of bus drivers. Checking in with her drivers to see how they’re feeling about this fall, she says most are still interested in driving. But she’s not sure she’ll have enough drivers to stretch out across the day if they end up adding more routes to better space out passengers. 

“Most of my drivers are not used to working an 8-hour day,” she said, noting many are retirees who just drive a few routes to keep busy. “Some want to go home for lunch. Many have a midday job, so they’re not able to come back and do another tier.” 

If the 2020-21 school year starts out in a completely distance-learning format, Casey hopes that the districts she contracts with will uphold their end of the bargain, financially, as they did this past spring, so she’s able to keep all of her drivers on payroll.

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“We were very lucky. All of our contracts held up. We paid all of our drivers though the whole school year,” she said. “That was because of the generosity of districts — they all upheld their end of the bargain. They also did it hoping we’d still have those drivers in the fall.”

Schubert says her district contracts held up through the spring as well. And she’s hoping that if this fall brings a full return to distance learning, that there “is that reciprocation again,” so they don’t lose drivers. She’s also already ordered 18 new school buses, to keep her fleet up to safety standards and ready for this fall.

“I’m hoping that because of the relationships we do have, they’ll understand and take care of us, one way or another,” she said.