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Districts, bus companies must figure out how to safely get kids to, from school

School bus driver Danny Flynn inspects a tire

School bus driver Danny Flynn inspects a tire on a school bus at a depot in Ronkonkoma. Credit: James Carbone

As Long Island educators grapple with how to safely resume in-person teaching during the coronavirus crisis, a central problem they face is how to get students to and from school.

Is social distancing possible on a school bus? Will parents drive their kids to class instead? Are masks and gloves enough to protect bus passengers and drivers from COVID-19?

With the traditional first day of school about two months away, questions like these are fueling a fraught summer, creating complex planning for school administrators and bus companies tasked with transforming student transportation during a pandemic. Reducing bus capacity, keeping the windows down and requiring siblings to sit together are possibilities, those involved in planning say, though some of the solutions could prove costly to districts already facing financial challenges.

“There’s a lot of unknowns,” said Debra Hagan, president of Transport Workers Union Local 252 in Islandia, which represents many of the nearly 5,000 school bus drivers on Long Island. “It’s very difficult to even fathom how any of this is going to work.”

A major hurdle to planning efforts, local school district superintendents said, is the lack of guidance from New York State.

“We really need clear guidelines. No one has provided any clarity,” Freeport Superintendent Kishore Kuncham said Monday.

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, during a news conference Wednesday, said the state will announce by Aug. 7 whether schools will reopen this fall.

"We all want to open schools, but we want it to be safe," he said.

In the meantime, a state-led school reopening task force has held virtual meetings with stakeholders to field ideas about what schooling should look like this year. The state Education Department will make recommendations on the subject Monday to the Board of Regents, which supervises education in New York. The state also has asked school districts to submit reopening plans by July 31.

Rethinking transportation

If in-person classes resume in the Jericho and Freeport school districts this fall, some of the transportation ideas include disinfecting vehicles daily, requiring masks and limiting bus capacity to enable social distancing.

Corey Muirhead, president of the New York School Bus Contractors Association and part of the state's task force reopening group, said other ideas include filling bus rows from back to front, requiring temperature checks before boarding, partitioning drivers from passengers, and seating siblings together.

John Corrado, president of Suffolk Transportation Service, which operates buses for 18 districts in the county, said keeping windows and roof hatches open are other ideas.

But some solutions create new problems. If temperature checks are mandatory, who will conduct them? How will drivers or assistants secure children in wheelchairs if there are partitions? And what would it mean if fewer children could ride each bus?

Reducing bus capacity would require more buses or trips to get the same number of kids to school. But Corrado said buying more buses is unwise if they are only needed until the virus is under control.

Hiring new drivers also would present challenges, said David Christopher, executive director of the trade group New York Association for Pupil Transportation, citing the shortage of school bus operators nationwide.

Without extra buses and drivers, districts likely must stagger the days and times students come to school to keep buses below capacity.

“Instead of three different start times, could we have six different start times?” Jericho Superintendent Hank Grishman asked. “That is within the realm of possibility.”

Some questioned whether keeping children separated on a bus is even possible.

“School buses just aren’t made for social distancing,” Christopher said.

Muirhead cited recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to seat one child in every other bus row, if possible. That would reduce bus capacity to about 11 kids, he said.

Baldwin schools Superintendent Shari Camhi said implementing the CDC's recommendation would increase the district's transportation budget from $7 million to $21 million.

"That is absolutely not possible," she said.

Yearning to get rolling

Despite the uncertainties, Long Island drivers expressed urgency to get school buses rolling again.

“If we don’t go back, now what do we do?” asked Nina Thomas, 62, a driver on Long Island for 15 years. “Do we have to start looking for other jobs?"

Hagan said three quarters of the 3,300 Long Island school bus drivers and assistants in her union local were laid off or furloughed when schools closed in the spring. Muirhead said drivers make on average $32,000 to $47,000 annually, plus benefits.

Thomas said she has an autoimmune disease, putting her at greater risk if she contracted the virus, but wants to get back behind the wheel nevertheless.

Corrado said it could be “devastating” for the roughly 15 student transportation companies on Long Island if schools delay reopening for months. If schools do open in September, those companies need to find out soon, Corrado said.

“The school bus industry needs at least six weeks to build runs,” he said, referring to the process of setting routes and timetables.

“We need to start putting pen to paper.”

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