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Ride along: What school buses will look like in the COVID-19 era

HOUSTON – School is about to start. For many children that means riding the bus. What plans do school districts have to handle transportation during a pandemic? KPRC 2 Investigates has answers about your child’s safety on the bus.

“I hope more parents can take their kids to school if they can,” said parent, Lesley Briggs. She added, “Just to ease the burden of the school buses and the school bus drivers.”

Just like campuses and classrooms, school buses have to adapt to COVID-19.

Santa Fe ISD: Airplane seating

“The seating plan is two per seat with the middle seat open,” said Mark McKinney, director of transportation for Santa Fe ISD. McKinney says the district is using so-called “airplane seating” to keep children apart on the bus. Masks are required for 10 and up, along with a splash of hand-sanitizer before climbing onboard.

"We've been sanitizing for all of our summer and meal delivery routes. After every run we sanitize the buses," said McKinney.

This image shows a seating plan for a Santa Fe ISD school bus.
This image shows a seating plan for a Santa Fe ISD school bus. (KPRC)

Cleveland ISD: Fastest-growing district

We heard nearly identical plans when visiting the fastest-growing school district in the state -- Cleveland ISD.

“Will kids be able to ride the bus without a mask?” asked KPRC 2 Investigates reporter Robert Arnold.

“No sir,” replied Cleveland ISD Superintendent Chris Trotter. “Entering the building or on the bus, they have to have a mask.”

Trotter said buses will also be sanitized in between runs. However, he does want parents to know when it comes to social distancing, with an 80% ridership in Cleveland and 8,000 students, social distancing is going to be tough on the bus.

Trotter said bus drivers will still work to make sure children are spread out as much as possible and hand sanitizer will be placed at the front of the bus.

“The bus driver will make sure that they are doing that as they enter the bus,” said Trotter.

Each district will have to come up with its own specific rules for bus riders, but one thing that is a constant is each district is asking parents to do their part. If your child is sick, and certainly if they have a fever, keep them home.

The school bus drivers

"I will tell you if you think teachers are afraid, bus drivers are terrified," said Nikki Cowart, American Federation of Teachers (AFT) Union President for Cy-Fair ISD.

"A lot of our drivers, specifically in Cy-Fair, this is a second career for them. So, they're older in age," said Cowart.

Cy-Fair ISD

Cowart did say some of these fears were alleviated when Cy-Fair recently announced its transportation plans. These include tweaking routes to try to reduce the number of children on each bus. Masks will be required, along with hand sanitizer. The district will also try to disinfect buses between routes and then the buses would be fogged with disinfectant at the end of each day.

HISD

The Houston area’s largest district, HISD has similar plans. When in-person instruction resumes, only special needs and homeless students will be bused to campus. As more students return, bus capacity will be limited and routes will be modified to ensure social distancing. Buses will be sanitized after each route and deep cleaned every week.

Friendswood ISD

Friendswood ISD will also require masks to board the bus. Additionally, hand sanitizer will be available at the entrance. Buses will also be deep cleaned and the inside of the bus will be sprayed-down.

What Can Parents Do?

“All of the usual hygiene issues are what I would focus on,” said UT Health pediatric infectious disease Dr. Michael Chang. He added that parents have a responsibility here too. Now is the time to instill proper hand hygiene in your children.

"Don't touch a bunch of stuff and then touch your face," said Chang.

Chang suggested that you should have your child sit next to the same student every day. That way, if a child on the bus tests positive for COVID-19, it’ll be easier for your child to remember if they sat near them on a recent bus ride.