As Arizona schools plan how to reopen, what about the buses?
How best to safely open Arizona classrooms has been the primary focus of parents, teachers and school administrators for weeks, but a different challenge is receiving little public consideration: how best to get kids safely to school.
About 26 million children ride school buses every school day in the United States in a normal school year, including hundreds of thousands in Arizona, but COVID-19 will complicate what is a mundane part of the school experience.
"People aren't focusing in on that yet, but they're going to have to," said Chuck Essigs, a lobbyist for the Arizona Association of School Business Officials and an education finance expert. "It's going to be a challenge that schools are going to have to face."
In June, the Arizona Department of Education and the Arizona Department of Health Services released a "Roadmap to Reopening Schools" that gave some guidance on how schools should handle busing students, but not much else has been said since.
"School districts will rely on CDC guidance and the mitigation protocols that ADHS provided for the roadmap," ADE spokesman Richie Taylor said. "If ADHS develops further health guidance around transportation, we will also provide that to schools..."
The roadmap states that schools should consider physical distancing on buses, possible assigned seating and, if physical distancing isn't available, consider cloth face masks and "other mitigation strategies..."
The roadmap also states that children on buses should be one to a seat and that rows should be skipped when possible. This would mean that a bus that would typically fit 50 kids would fit roughly between 15 to 20 kids. Buses also need to be disinfected after trips.
"Without knowing the particular situation you are probably looking at three- to five times the number of routes to get the same number of kids to school," Essigs said, adding that it could create ballooning transportation costs for school districts.
Some districts are already telling parents that buses are the only way students can come to school unless a parent drops them off.
The Madison Elementary School District is not allowing children to walk or ride bikes to school, and parents that drive their students to school will have to check them in and out.
Students will stand together at bus stops while socially distancing themselves, and any students exhibiting COVID-19 symptoms will not be allowed to ride the bus, according to Madison spokeswoman Nicole Rodriguez.
The district also has guidelines on what drivers are supposed to do if they see children exhibiting symptoms.
And if a parent refuses to take their child home, the driver "will contact their dispatcher, who will notify the school that a potentially symptomatic student is arriving and should see the school health associate or nurse," Rodriguez said.
In addition to the seating protocols advised by ADHS, the Madison district also will be having drivers load children from back to front to avoid students passing one another. When exiting they will do the opposite, Rodriguez said.
The buses also will be disinfected after every trip.
Other school districts don't have the same kind of concrete plans as Madison, though.
"Truth is, we haven't figured that out yet," Derek Born, a 10th grade English teacher at Coconino High School, said about buses in his district. Born said that the district is working on subcommittees to talk about the issue and get back to everyone about how it will work out but no official word has come back. Additionally, no one knows how many parents will opt for in-person learning yet anyways, Born said.
"Transportation has always been a challenge," Essigs said, "COVID-19 just magnifies that challenge..."
The Maricopa County Department of Public Health also has advised schools about bus safety, though its guidance has been more or less the same as ADE and ADHS.
"Public Health advises that bus seating that allows distancing and encourages mask use will have lower risk than traditional school bus transportation where kids are not social distancing or using masks," Maricopa County Department of Public Health spokeswoman Jennifer Franklin said.
While Arizona is preparing for opening, in neighboring Utah, school bus drivers are asking for more COVID-19 protections and some in the school bus safety world have been promoting the installation of infrared thermometers in buses.
"You want to make sure you're taking the same precautions you are taking to protect the bus drivers as you are taking to protect the teachers," Essigs said. "It's just as important to get kids to school and back safely as it is to keep them safe in school."
For some parents, the fear of having their kids ride the bus is too much.
"I don't know how they're going to have the same amount of buses and send the same amount of kids to school," Tempe parent Danielle Pollett said.
Pollett has four kids — two in high school and two in middle school — who used to take the bus, but now she plans on driving them when in-person schooling resumes.
"I was in that boat when I was a kid. I was a latchkey kid," Pollett said of kids who ride the bus to school. "I had to get myself up and get myself to the bus in the morning because both my parents were already at work."
Now Pollett, a stay-at-home mom, worries about other families who may not have the same ability she does to drive their kids to school.
"We're just not leaving our parents with very many choices," Pollett said, adding that information on how the Tempe Union High School District is implementing its bus procedures was hard for her to find.
The district has information on transportation safety standards on its website, including that face masks will be required on buses and temperature checks may be initiated. Buses will also run at 50% capacity, the district says, and buses will be cleaned daily.
One of Pollett's new concerns now is that she can get all her kids to school on time: Her younger children's school is in Ahwatukee while the older two attend school in Chandler.
Another issue facing buses and their drivers is where they serve.
"Our fleet puts on a crazy number of miles each year," Born said about the buses in Coconino.
Buses in some parts of the state travel on poorly maintained or dirt roads, and requiring more routes to accommodate fewer children on each bus could place an acute strain on rural schools' budgets, Essig said.
On the Navajo Nation, where the virus hit early and hard, there are some students in the Holbrook area who wake up at 4 a.m. for a 3 hour bus ride in order to attend school. Currently buses in the Navajo Nation and in areas in northern Arizona are being used to deliver food to students in that region.
"There are a lot of broad unknowns that a lot of us are concerned about," Born said of reopening schools in Arizona. However, Born still has hope as he has seen his colleagues thrive in the struggles of the new learning environments they've been thrown into.
"I've seen an incredible depth of commitment to make this work," Born said. "I would urge folks to give us as much grace as they can."
This report was first published by the Arizona Mirror.