How school bus operators plan to mitigate COVID-19 spread

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5 min readPosted August 14, 2020

Student transportation will look markedly different this year due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Parents who opt to send their children to school will have to decide whether to transport children themselves, find alternative transportation, or follow the protocols that have been established by the Pennsylvania Department of Education and other state and federal agencies.

Dave Schlotter, Director of Safety and Operations at Brightbill Transportation, said his company is working with school officials to implement guidelines as recommended by state and federal government officials. Brightbill provides transportation for 10,000 to 12,000 students in the Cornwall-Lebanon (CLSD) and Eastern Lebanon County (ELCO) school districts.

“From our standpoint, if the district has a position on the guidelines, that is the one we are going to fulfill,” Schlotter said. “Guidelines have been issued to school districts by PDE (Pennsylvania Department of Education), the Pennsylvania Department of Health and the CDC (Centers for Disease Control).”

Representatives from both districts said they will follow PDE-issued guidelines, which were announced by the department on July 16th.

ELCO Business Manager Michael Miller said ELCO officials also conducted a preliminary survey that showed about 30 percent of parents want to drive their own child to school. Newly implemented education models, which include virtual learning, will also lead to fewer students using district-provided transportation, Miller added.

“I would say that we will have abnormally higher enrollments in our virtual academy,” Miller said. In other words, there won’t be as many children taking the bus as there might be in a typical school year.

Read more: CLSD super says most parents want in-person schooling, discusses plan for fall

“So, at least at the elementary level, that will derive social distancing for the district and, at the secondary level, we are planning a hybrid model, where — and I’m just throwing out numbers that are only preliminary — only about 50 percent of the children will be, at any one point, in the school building.”

Miller said the district just issued a binding survey to parents that can be filled out by paper or online requiring them to finalize their child’s academic selections for the start of the school year, which begins at ELCO and CLSD on August 31. This survey includes one simple question about student transportation needs: Will you be using school-provided transportation or not?

“If you say yes, you’ll be rostered a spot on the bus. If you say no, you’ll be taken off the bus,” Miller said — at least for the first marking period. Before the end of the first part of the school year, he added, the question will be revisited.

A Blue/Gold hybrid attendance schedule for secondary students will also lessen student exposure on buses and during the school day. While the hybrid plan hasn’t been formally adopted, it does appear that the district is moving in that direction, according to Miller.

“I do not think the large details will change at this point,” Miller said. “The school board is on board with the plan. Pending anything large, such as new guidance from PDE, we will be following the plan.”

Brightbill Transportation is also looking at big changes in the new school year. Drivers will have to sanitize high-touch areas on the inside of the bus four times a day, before and between their two daily runs each morning and afternoon, according to Schlotter.

“Each driver will do their normal safety checks following a run but then also will sanitize high-touch areas before making the second run in the morning and in the afternoon,” Schlotter said.

While on the bus, students will have to wear a face covering — as will bus drivers, who will don face shields provided by Brightbill.

Schlotter said the state’s key guidelines for loading and seating students on the bus include:

  • Loading the bus by filling seats from back to front to limit students walking past students to find a seat
  • Not seating students in the front row of the bus
  • Assigning seats by cohorts (same students sit together each day) or encourage students from the same family to sit together, or both

“Some have asked why we are keeping the front seats empty, and we’ve told them we’re going to do it because that’s what we’ve been asked to do,” Schlotter said.

Under CLSD’s 10-page Health and Safety Plan, which was approved at a board meeting on July 27, there are two references to transportation. (ELCO has also posted on their website their standards, which are located on pages 16-17 of their Phased School Reopening Health and Safety Plan Template document.)

Read more: 3 lessons from how schools responded to 1918 pandemic worth heeding today

At Cornwall-Lebanon, the district is looking to require “adjusting transportation schedules and practices to create social distance between students.” They will achieve that goal by “encouraging alternative modes of transportation for students other than busing, if possible.”

The second requirement addresses sanitizing commonly used student areas, which includes transportation and other portions of school property. A note on the district’s website indicates that the school board plans to vote on the Health and Safety Plan on Monday, August 10.

In a video prepared for parents by CLSD, pandemic coordinator Dr. Michael Robinson informs parents that the district needs to be informed by survey of how their children will be transported to school.

The survey asks whether the parent or someone they know will transport their child, if the student will walk, if their child is enrolled in virtual education or home schooled or if the student will drive to school.

Read more: [Column] Parents need to ask serious questions regarding the return to school

Content on the transportation page also notes that the district “transports 90 percent of its 5,341 resident student population to and from school.”

In addition to meeting the COVID-19 guidelines, Schlotter said Brightbill is in the process of providing safety training so drivers can get behind the wheel again, which, for most, will be the first time since schools closed following the statewide shutdown in mid-March.

“The main key will be to provide a trainer to go out with the drivers to ensure they are doing everything properly,” Schlotter said. “We are going to have to provide some training for what the drivers will have to deal with while wearing a face shield. We’re also going to get them in a bus and get them acclimated to driving again.”

Because safety is of paramount importance, Brightbill instructors will also revisit the rules of the road.

“There are so many rules and procedures to follow, whether you’re crossing railroad tracks or picking up or dropping off students at home, so we’ll be going over those rules with our drivers, too,” Schlotter said. “We’ll also instruct them on how to mitigate the spread of the virus by sanitizing their buses.”

Other preventive protocols being established by Brightbill pertain to ensuring their 100-115 part-time workers remain healthy.

“Bus drivers tend to be people who like to congregate with one another and we can’t do that anymore,” Schlotter said. “We have to take steps to make sure that the virus doesn’t spread throughout the fleet because if we don’t have enough drivers to drive, the kids won’t get to school.”

Another safety measure is utilizing contact tracing to determine which employees may have been, or who have the potential to have been, infected by the virus, Schlotter added.

While the company believes it has enough drivers for Lebanon County for the coming school year, there are openings in Lancaster County and the bus line is always looking to add to their pool of substitute drivers.

“We’re always interested in finding new people to come in and be drivers,” Schlotter said. “Right now, we don’t know if we’ll have a shortage of drivers or not because we don’t know what’s going to happen.”

Besides a paycheck, a matching 401(k) and other perks, Schlotter said drivers have the opportunity to be a guiding force in the lives of the children they shuttle to school.

“You get to see children, interact with our youth and have the opportunity to make a difference in their lives,” Schlotter said. “They may not remember their teachers years later, but they do remember their bus drivers. The bus driver is the first face they see in the morning and the last when they get home at the end of the school day.”


Read all of LebTown’s COVID-19 coverage here.

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