As school districts across the country prepare to send kids back to school in-person, many bus drivers are voicing concerns about the potential for COVID-19 to spread on school buses, where oftentimes social distancing is nearly impossible.
For the better part of 32 years, Cheryl Merritt has driven a school bus in Hanover, Massachusetts. She has driven in every kind of weather condition imaginable, but this is the first year she’ll be driving a bus during a pandemic.
“I just want all the kids on the bus to stay safe and the drivers to stay safe. If we have a driver who gets sick, they’re going to be out for at least 14 days,” she lamented, as she turned her bus onto a side street in a residential New England town.
Merritt’s concerns are shared by school bus drivers and districts across the country. Many school bus drivers have retired from other professions, meaning their age makes them more susceptible to catching the virus.
“I don’t want this, I don’t. I’m not ready to die,” the 61-year-old Merritt said.
School buses are presenting a particularly difficult challenge as districts try to send kids back to the classroom. When fully loaded with kids, most school buses fit about 77 students. Cramming students into a bus though would be a perfect place for COVID-19 to spread, so many states are advising bus companies to have only one student per bench. But taking some bus capacity down to about 12 kids means school districts would need to run double or triple the number of trips each day just to pick every child up.
Transportation experts say adding more buses would be nearly impossible given a nationwide bus driver shortage, which existed long before the outbreak.
“It doesn’t matter what you’re gonna do with kids once you get them to school, you have to get them there first,” explained David Strong, who works with the School Transportation Association of Massachusetts.
Strong’s other concern is that kids won’t adhere to social distancing guidelines or mask-wearing requirements once they get onto a bus.
“There’s almost no way to realistically social distance on a bus,” he added.
To address concerns about the spread of COVID, many school districts are mandating that school buses keep their windows open year-round to help with the flow of air. Some districts are also adding bus monitors to ensure kids, especially elementary school students, are following new guidelines.
As for Merritt, she sees herself and other bus drivers as the first line of defense when it comes to keeping COVID-19 out of the classroom.
“When you stop to pick up a child look at them, make sure they don’t look sickly or they’re coughing,” she said.