Local school bus industry stakeholders praised Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo's announcement Friday that schools can reopen, but they said questions remain about how students will get to and from school safely as the pandemic continues.
"It's great news," said Nina Thomas, a longtime Long Island school bus driver who hasn't worked since March, when schools closed statewide because of the virus. But "there's still things, in my opinion, that need to be hammered out."
Among those issues, according to some in the industry: whether older drivers will be reluctant to work amid the pandemic; the number of students on buses; and adhering to social distancing protocols.
Citing the low infection rate statewide, Cuomo gave school districts the green light to open this fall if their proposed reopening plans receive state approval. He did not say anything specifically about busing. But the state health and education departments released guidelines on school reopenings last month that addressed student transportation.
With one month to go before schools typically open, Corey Muirhead, president of the New York School Bus Contractors Association, said the time frame is tight to have buses ready to roll in September.
"It's doable, yes. But there'll be challenges," he said. Those include getting drivers and vehicles back in compliance with government regulations, and ensuring there'll be enough drivers to cover all the routes.
Muirhead noted school bus drivers tend to be older, and many of those drivers may be wary of getting back behind the wheel because of the ongoing threat of the virus.
That could compound a nationwide shortage of school bus drivers that predates the pandemic, according to David Christopher, executive director of the trade group New York Association for Pupil Transportation.
Another challenge is figuring out how many passengers each bus will need or be permitted to carry, said John Corrado, president of Suffolk Transportation Service, which operates buses for numerous school districts in Suffolk County.
Because of the pandemic, more parents could opt for remote learning for their children or driving them to school themselves, Corrado said. Moreover, the number of students that school districts have proposed putting on each bus varies, he said, and it's unclear whether the state will ultimately approve the higher passenger loads.
The education agency's guidelines state "students who are able will be required to wear masks and social distance on the bus," but they do not specify the number of students permitted on each vehicle.
The health department stated face coverings are mandatory on buses "in instances when 6 feet cannot be maintained."
With the lingering uncertainties, Corrado said school districts, bus companies and parents will have to be flexible.
"We're going to have to get creative and everyone's going to have to be patient," he said.