Districts go round and round on school bus reopening plans

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FILE - In this Friday, July 10, 2020, file photo, rows of school buses are parked at their terminal, in Zelienople, Pa. Reopening schools during the coronavirus pandemic means putting children on school buses, and districts are working on plans to limit the risk. (AP Photo/Keith Srakocic, File)

HARRISBURG, Pa. – School districts nationwide puzzling over how to safely educate children during a pandemic have a more immediate challenge — getting 26 million bus-riding students there in the first place.

Few challenges are proving to be more daunting than figuring out how to maintain social distance on school buses. A wide array of strategies have emerged to reduce the health risks but nobody has found a silver bullet.

Should students with COVID-19 symptoms be isolated at the front of the school bus? Should bus seats be assigned? Should buses be loaded from the back? Should buses only carry a few students at a time?

“The transportation professionals are left with the issue of, OK, you’ve got little Billy at the bus stop. Mom’s not there and he’s got a temperature. That’s a dilemma,” said Steve Simmons, a bus safety expert who used to head pupil transportation for Columbus, Ohio, public schools. “We can’t answer those kinds of questions. I don’t think anybody can.”

Simmons, president of the National Association for Pupil Transportation, was part of team of industry and school officials who produced a 70-page report on ways to lower the risk of COVID-19 transmission.

Many schools have been surveying parents to determine how many students will take the bus and how many will be privately driven to school. Others are making decisions about bus capacity that involve a trade-off between safety and affordability.

The task force report warned that a 6-foot (2-meter) social distancing regulation “is not financially nor operationally feasible,” and that “current thinking” is that a 72-student capacity bus can accommodate 24 students, or more if family members sit together.

Some large districts will nonetheless “jam ’em in” the school bus, Simmons said, while other districts plan to stagger school start times or teach half the students in the morning and the rest in the afternoon, with two sets of bus runs.