LACONIA — As educators grapple with how to provide a safe place for students at school, districts are also wrestling with the safest way to get them to school and back again.
With nearly nine in 10 of the state’s public school students riding on school buses, according to state statistics, transportation is clearly one of the biggest pieces of the puzzle on how to reopen school during the coronavirus pandemic.
Area school districts are still working to come up with a plan on what school will look like when classes resume in the next five to six weeks. Meanwhile, those who provide student transportation say that until they hear from the individual districts exactly how schools will operate and what COVID-19 precautions students will have to follow, they will not know how and to what extent they can provide the necessary bus services.
“Every (school bus) provider needs to hear from the districts how they are proceeding,” said Marc Raposo, president of the New Hampshire School Transportation Association, a trade association of school districts and private bus contractors providing transportation for the state's school children.
Especially critical for transportation companies will be what social-distancing safeguards students will be required to follow.
The state’s guidelines urge that safety protocols be “realistic and not overly disruptive.”
But whether school districts mandate students to wear face masks on the bus will have a big impact on how many students will be able to ride on a bus, according to other guidance that educators and bus transportation providers are studying. Fewer students on a bus would then necessitate more bus runs and/or more buses depending which instruction scenario a district chooses to follow. Districts which choose to have their students come to school every day will place a greater demand on the school bus infrastructure than a district which decides on a hybrid instruction model, with students alternating between in-school instruction and remote learning.
“That may cut the numbers down,” Raposo said of the hybrid model.
Guidance coming from the National Council on School Facilities and Cooperative Strategies shows buses could carry as much as four times the number of pupils safely if the students are wearing masks — 28 students — versus seven students if the students do not wear masks, based on a bus with a normal capacity of 56 riders.
But mandating masks will create problems for drivers unless school districts back up the mandate with effective enforcement, Raposo said.
“Bus drivers cannot be expected to be the mask police,” Raposo said. “They have to keep their eyes on the road. If that’s the level (of protection) that’s required,” he continued, “then the district is going to have to think about putting monitors on the buses and that would be costly.”
Consideration also needs to be given to students who suffer from chronic medical conditions and therefore are more susceptible to the COVID virus. Guidance recommends that these students have a bus seat reserved especially for them, and that it be given more thorough cleaning and disinfecting.
Making the situation more daunting, transportation providers face the prospect of having to operate more buses and/or schedule more bus runs when there is already a chronic shortage of school bus drivers.
Before the COVID-19 crisis, more than 90 percent of school districts reported bus driver shortages, according to a survey by the National Association for Pupil Transportation. One-third of those districts described the shortage as “desperate or severe.”
Raposo described the shortage of drivers in New Hampshire as chronic.
Also, a great many school bus drivers are retirees, Raposo said. Since people older than 65 are at higher risk for severe illness due to COVID-19, district leaders fear that many drivers might not feel comfortable coming back to work.
Still others might not return if generous unemployment benefits continue. Drivers in many districts across the state drivers were laid off in March when schools switched to remote learning. Since then they have been receiving an additional $600 a week under the economic stimulus. That supplement is scheduled to run out at the end of this month. But the benefit might resume in some form if another stimulus bill is passed.
“We will not know until the last minute if they will come back,” Raposo said.
Another consideration, Raposo pointed out, is that some bus drivers might not want to take on additional bus runs because they have other part-time jobs which they have been able to sandwich in between their usual morning and afternoon bus runs.
But it is also possible that continued concerns over the threat of the COVID virus could reduce school bus ridership.
The state guidelines on school reopening published three weeks ago encourages parents to think about driving their children to and from school or for groups of parents to arrange for carpools to get their kids to school and back again.
“We may find the number of people using buses may decrease,” Raposo said.