Parents across Connecticut are concerned about their children being exposed to the coronavirus in the classroom this fall, but the threat may start before they even get there. The level of safety precautions on school buses will vary from district to district, but most can expect to see mask wearing and thinly populated buses.
William Hendrix wants the back-to-school conversation to consider people like him. He has been driving buses in Bloomfield for 40 years. He’s also a steward with Teamsters Local 671. He’ll be doing more work this fall, cleaning the bus up to six times a day. In some cases, he’ll provide masks to students boarding the bus.
“I have not heard a superintendent mention anything about the drivers, not one word. And I just want them to know what we’re gonna be going through,” Hendrix said. “We care about the kids, we want to get them there safe in the morning, we don’t want them to get sick, we don’t want the teachers to get sick, but we also don’t want to get sick.”
The masking and cleaning are part of the guidelines for bus travel put forth by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But there are more, including physical barriers between the bus driver and passengers and keeping foot traffic in a single direction. Implementing these measures falls to each school district. Hendrix has not heard of his bus line or district providing the plexiglass barriers he hopes for.
And with all this additional work, there’s another thing left out of the conversation: pay.
“They haven’t spoken anything about money yet,” Hendrix said. “That’s an issue with me, and I think it’s an issue with a lot of the other drivers.”
Hendrix says the union brought up the idea of hazard pay, but it was never granted.
What The Bus Ride Will Look Like
Students in Woodbridge will board the bus single file. Interim Superintendent Christine Syriac said students will load back to front and then unload front to back. A third of students have indicated they plan to ride the bus, but the district will keep the same fleet of buses running to allow for ample social distancing.
“Students must wear a mask on the bus,” Syriac said. “The bus driver will have masks in case the student did not have a mask when they were getting on the bus. And in addition to that, we will have monitors on the bus for the first two weeks of school.”
Most districts are employing monitors, according to Brad Cohen, president of the Connecticut Operators School Transportation Association. While the state recommends using monitors, ultimately that question will come down to money, Cohen said, and drivers will be left with the rest of the work.
“Where there aren’t monitors, the drivers will do the best that they can,” Cohen said, “but naturally their most important job is making sure they get their students there safely, so they have to keep their eyes on the road.”
He says Connecticut guidelines allow for full capacity on buses at the moment given the low rate of virus infection. But if that infection level goes up, limits on bus capacity will drop to 50%.
After the two weeks with monitors, children on the bus who don’t follow the protocols will only be subject to reprimand once they arrive at school. And for Hendrix, that’s a problem.
”If they refuse to wear a mask, you turn the child in, Hendrix said, “but meanwhile, they’re sitting on the bus with no mask all this time. So that’s something that really needs to be taken another look at.”
Depending on how districts choose to regulate the ride to school, it could become another place for the virus to hitch a ride.
Ali Oshinskie is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places