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School buses in focus as kids return to classes amid coronavirus pandemic

AUSTIN, Texas — As more students get ready to head back to the classroom for in-person learning, all eyes are on how school districts will handle the COVID-19 pandemic.

Allison Mack has fourth and second graders; both are starting the school year with virtual learning and she is worried about eventually sending them back school in Texas.

She said, “I don’t want to be the statistic of the certain percentage of kids that go back and then get the whole household sick, and God forbid hospitalization, so it’s a very scary time to try to decide what is best.”

A 10-year-old and 7-year-old in Texas attending school virtually during the COVID-19 pandemic.

A 10-year-old and 7-year-old in Texas attending school virtually during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Mack said virtual learning has been a challenge, but overall, it has gone well. However, she said she’s eager to get her kids back to school, adding it’s important for them.

“It has definitely been a unique situation and one for the record books,” Mack said. “I feel like they need to go to school and they need to see their friends and have that structure, and I feel like they are craving that.”

Mack said she’s especially concerned about school buses.

“We do have bus riders and I think what is going to be really tough is making sure the kids are wearing their masks, especially the younger ones,” Mack said. “I would love to see if there is some kind of monitor that can be on the bus with the kids to help the driver make sure the rules are enforced.”

As of 2019, the Amalgamated Transit Union reported 55% of students in kindergarten-through 12th grade ride the bus to school. Various districts have been working on ways to keep them safe during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The National Association for Pupil Transportation (NAPT), which oversees 2,000 transportation departments including schools, issued guidance for transportation departments operating during the pandemic.

“We want to ensure the kids are as safe as they can be,” NAPT President Steve Simmons said. “We will be cleaning the buses inside, all of the high-touch areas. Drivers will be tested for COVID-19 before their shift, they will also be wearing masks and gloves in some cases and transportation departments will be following your state and local guidelines.”

Austin ISD Transportation Department does temperature checks for bus drivers before anyone can start their shift.

Austin ISD Transportation Department does temperature checks for bus drivers before anyone can start their shift.

NAPT is based out of Albany, N.Y. The group reported it’s working to address concerns from parents around the clock, the biggest being whether students will be socially distant from one another.

“When a bus has six or eight students on it and it is designed for 65, it is not very efficient,” Simmons said. “You will not be able to get all of the kids to school without some major changes in your bell times. You will have to have multiple bell times to get the students to school or alternate which days students are going in to class.”

Simmons said there are several other precautions in place, aside from social distancing to keep children safe.

“The financial ramifications for a district to try to get all the kids to school in a timely manner using a single bell time will be astronomical,” Simmons said.

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Austin Independent School District is the fifth-largest district in Texas, with 128 schools in the district. It’s already added over $13 million to its budget for COVID-19 supplies inside and outside the school.

The district has bought over 3 million masks for students and staff, as well as hand sanitizer and other disinfecting sprays.

District officials said they will not be able to keep students 6 feet apart; however, they will limit the bus seats to only one student “when possible,” among several other safety measurements in place.

“We do require all students and employees wear a mask, we have hand sanitizers installed on every bus,” Austin ISD Executive Director of Transportation and Vehicle Services Kris Hafezizadeh said. “We have also sprayed the buses with a disinfectant that we also use in the schools and we will continue to do that.”

Austin ISD in Texas installed hand sanitizer dispensers on every school bus.

Austin ISD in Texas installed hand sanitizer dispensers on every school bus.

The district will also require students to wear masks on the bus and will also keep the seat behind the bus driver empty, officials said. They added that workers will clean buses before and after use, and windows will be down when the weather allows.

“Our employees are also going through testing before they get on the bus,” Hafezizadeh said.

Both Simmons and Hafezizadeh said the most important thing was “safety for all of the students,” but NAPT added it will take time to figure out the best way to move forward for schools and for students.

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“Nobody has all the answers on what to do or even how to do it, we are just going to have to start to see what is the best way to transport the students,” Simmons said.

The district also has been looking for other ways to help during the pandemic. On Sept. 8, when the school year started for Austin ISD, the district dispatched more than 200 buses equipped with Wi-Fi across the city to be used as hotspots for students learning remotely rather than heading to the classroom for in-person learning.

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