The state’s new coronavirus guidelines for protecting students’ health while they ride on a school bus in the fall has some school officials scratching their heads, wondering how they will be able to fit all the new protocols into a workable, affordable plan for their districts.
The Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education’s plan essentially cuts the maximum number of students allowed on each bus in half and allows for one student per bench seat. The exception to the new one-student-per-seat rule is that siblings will be allowed to sit together.
Additionally, the guidelines state that seating should be staggered by row. For instance, in the first row, the student would sit closer to the window in one row, and in the next row, the student would sit closer to the isle. Students of all ages will be required to wear face coverings while on buses.
The state is also advising districts to hire bus monitors to ensure that students follow the rules regarding social distancing and face coverings.
Bus windows will be open during operation for ventilation, though an exception to this will be made for extreme weather conditions.
The state suggested that districts should consider staggering school start and end times and adding bus routes, encourage parents to drive their children to school or assign fixed groups of students for carpooling, and promote walk-to-school campaigns.
Protocols have also been proposed for students with disabilities, pickup and drop-off procedures, and keeping the buses clean.
Parents of students who qualify for specialized transportation through their individualized education plan will be eligible for reimbursement when it comes to transportation arrangements that need to be made. If the family cannot transport their student, districts are required to coordinate and provide transportation.
Districts have been asked to have students enter the building one bus load at a time. Parents picking up and dropping off their children will be asked to remain in their vehicles.
Buses will be disinfected after each morning route and each afternoon route. This means that, in a district with three schools, buses will have to be cleaned at least six times per day.
All of these changes, with their related costs, come while the districts are working frantically to formulate reopening plans for their school buildings and determine how many—if any—students will attend in-person classroom lessons in the fall.
Sandwich Superintendent Pamela A. Gould has sent out surveys asking parents if they needed their child to take the school bus and if they would be willing and able to drive their child if needed.
Dr. Gould said state guidelines are going to make planning difficult, which is why she had asked parents if they would be willing to drive their children to school if busing was not available.
“There were quite a few parents who said in the survey that they would be able to drive their kids if we needed it. We may need that,” she said.
She said she has spoken to districts that have no choice but to go with the hybrid model of school, where some students learn remotely one week and attend school in-person the following week while another group learns at home so that they can fit all the students they need to on the school buses.
Another survey will be sent out to parents next week, Dr. Gould said. In this survey, parents are going to be asked to be more definitive with their answers.
“Right now our new transportation company is looking at the current names we have to determine the routes. Then, after the survey, we will take out the kids who will opt for remote and the ones who can drive their kid, then see where we are,” Dr. Gould said.
During a Bourne School Committee meeting on Wednesday, July 29, Bourne Superintendent Kerri Anne Quinlan-Zhou said district officials will not be able to finalize their transportation plans until they know exactly how many students are planning to return to the buildings during the fall, as opposed to how many parents will choose to keep their children home for remote learning.
“We are still in the process of ascertaining the number of students who will need transportation and the possibility of staggering the start times to allow more bus runs, so the impact to reopening is not yet determined,” she said.
She asked that families let the district know what their decisions are by Wednesday, August 12, so that officials can plan for student scheduling and transportation. Dr. Zhou said before that time there will be more specifics as to exactly what those decisions will mean.