As districts task forces plan for schools to reopen, they overlook a key component of this plan: a shortage of bus drivers. Twenty-six million children are transported on school buses in the United States each year. In normal years, children pack these buses. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidelines recommend adequate social distancing. How is this going to happen?
The challenge of social distancing on a school bus
The feasibility of students social distancing on a school bus requires an answer. School districts will need either more buses on every route or fewer kids, there’s no middle ground. Any plan has to take bus drivers into consideration. Most plans will require more school bus drivers.
In February, prior to the pandemic, 67% of American school districts were already experiencing problems maintaining school bus staffing. Finding more bus drivers in a normal year is challenging. Finding bus drivers during a pandemic and in possibly unsafe conditions is probably not going to happen. It is doubtful that there will be enough bus drivers to have a safe reopening of schools.
If a school district plans to open normally but also plans to follow social distancing recommendations, the occupancy rate of the buses must drop drastically. Half of the seats on any bus may become off limits, basically the aisle seats. If the normal number of students were still going to school each day, to compensate for the reduced numbers of students per bus, the school district might need two buses for every route. Consequently, the district probably would need double the bus drivers to safely reopen.
A school district could decide to open with a split schedule; half of the grades learn in the morning and half of the grades learn in the afternoon. This split schedule reduces the occupancy rates of the buses. However, split schedules would certainly double the number of bus trips. As a result, the morning students travel to school and then brought back to their homes; then the afternoon students would travel to school and back home. Once again, a doubling of bus drivers might be required.
The only type of schedule that may not inherently require extra bus drivers would be the hybrid schedule. Hybrid schedules mean that some grades are on site at school and some are at home at any given time. The occupancy rate of the buses would be decreased as some of the grades would be learning remotely at home at any given time, thus, freeing up space.
School districts need to prepare for a shortage of bus drivers
Realistically, all schools, no matter what schedule they decide upon, will require extra bus drivers if they reopen during the pandemic. Drivers will get sick or exposed, and some drivers may decide the health risks are not worth the money and resign, resulting in a shortage of bus drivers. The average age of bus drivers across the U.S. is 52, which is concerning. A lot of bus drivers are vulnerable to the disease. Each school district is going to need to line up substitutes when the shortage of bus drivers becomes apparent.
Districts are going to need more bus drivers to reopen schools safely. However, incentivizing people to apply for bus driving jobs will be difficult. Bus drivers are front-line workers and have a large risk of contracting the coronavirus. Cities like Los Angeles have set up regulations to limit a bus driver’s exposure to the virus. Passengers board and exit through the rear doors only, and there is a protective plastic barrier around the driver. Metropolitan buses were designed for adults, though, not kids. Reconfiguring the school bus to keep the students and the bus driver safe at all times will be a challenge.
School buses have an emergency door at the rear of the bus, which students do not use as an exit for safety reasons. Kids could literally fall out of the bus when the bus is moving if it weren’t latched properly. Thus, every child going on the bus will likely pass next to the driver. Even if protective barriers surround the drivers’ seats, the drivers will be in closer proximity to the children, which carries risks.
Bus drivers are also not only drivers. They are the only adults supervising a bus full of kids who may not understand social distancing rules or may not care. This extra responsibility puts the drivers at even more risk; they will undoubtedly also have to manage issues inside the bus, which could require leaving their barrier.
With respect to the coronavirus, bus drivers also have more risk of getting critically ill than the children inside. It is currently believed that children are half as likely to get Covid-19 than adults are, but 80% of children with the virus likely will not show symptoms. Asymptomatic children can still infect others, even as the children maintain social distancing. However, every time the asymptomatic child goes in and out of the bus, that child exposes the bus driver to the virus.
The dangers of being a school bus driver not only will dissuade those from applying but may also cause older bus drivers to quit. The average salary for a school bus driver in the United States is $33,000, which may not be enough to offset the risk for vulnerable workers.
With the added need for increasing bus routes to reduce bus occupancy, providing substitutes, and making up for probable resignments, school districts are going to find it very difficult to get enough staff. Canada is further along in the fight against Covid-19 than the United States, and schools are thinking of reopening. In Ontario they are discussing impending bus driver shortages, and this is ominous for the U.S. school districts.
The sad fact is that without enough bus drivers schools will not reopen safely, but some schools may still reopen. The U.S. should question whether it is worth the risk to open with kids riding in crowded buses.
Read more on how Covid-19 is impacting schools with staff shortages, poor ventilation potentially causing super-spreader events, and social distancing difficulties.