Up Next: School Bus Crisis

by Kerry Dougherty

Last week we marveled at Gov. Ralph Northam’s unworkable guidelines to reopen Virginia schools this fall.

Richmond’s bizarre restrictions on social distancing and class size make it impossible for kids to be in their classrooms five days a week.

Instead, most school districts seem to cooking up schemes to divide student bodies in half with 50% of children in school two days a week, the other half in school for two other days a week, and the fifth day given over for teacher planning.

In other words, we’re looking at a two-day-a-week school year.

Sure, school officials insist that students will also have three days of virtual learning, but it’s no secret that distance learning was a colossal disaster this spring.

I read a Washington Post piece on distance learning this week and spied this comment from a teacher who wants to go back to the classroom five days a week even if it puts her and her family in peril for Covid-19:

Full online learning was a disaster for my unprivileged school population, because of technology and internet access issues, and most importantly, parental supervision/support.  THEIR parents were the essential workers making sure everyone else’s shelves were stocked and facilities cleaned and construction continued. THEIR parents weren’t home helping with assignments, and the ones who were home don’t speak English or have a proper education themselves even if they wanted to help. I couldn’t reach out to support the parents because most of them don’t even answer their phones, if they have one, or they hang up the phone as soon as they hear an English voice on the other end.

More proof, if any was needed, that virtual learning hurts poor and minority students the most.

But wait, there’s another a problem looming.

Washington Post piece headlined, “Loudoun County Announces Fall Plan That Includes More Remote Learning, Sparking Parent Anger,” claimed that parents were steamed that their children — who are at very low risk of contracting the virus — would not be in class five days a week. Protests are planned.

Here’s the paragraph that caught my eye:

Taking the bus to school would look different, too. Under the suggested rules, students would sit one per seat and in every other row, whenever possible, although siblings from the same household would be permitted to sit together. This would significantly reduce bus capacity, the guidelines note: Following this plan, a formerly 77-passenger bus could accommodate just 13 students.

Wait a minute. A large school bus, that’s normally jammed with kids three-to-a-seat will be able to carry only 13 passengers?

What will that mean to local school districts?

Virginia Beach struggles to find school bus drivers. This pic was snapped in mid-August 2018.

To find out, I contacted the Virginia Beach Public Schools. Turns out the Beach transports 45,750 students every day by bus.

So let’s do a little elementary math, shall we?

If Virginia Beach goes to a split schedule, roughly 22,875 bus riders will need the service on any given day. With 13 cherubs to a cheese wagon, the Beach will need 1,760 buses.

Dang. That’s unfortunate.

The city owns just 750 buses and has only 568 bus drivers.

How much would 1,010 new buses cost? Stripped- down buses, probably without turn signals or headlights, carry a price tag of at least $50,000. My abacus says the price tag would be roughly $50 million.

At the risk of sounding like a glass-half-full girl, I have to wonder where the schools will find the loot for new buses.

Where will they find drivers?

This entire school plan is a fat unfunded mandate from Richmond.

If the governor wants only 13 kids on a bus, let him find the dough to pay for a new fleet of buses.

Or work out a deal with Uber to deliver the kids to school each morning.

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24 responses to “Up Next: School Bus Crisis

  1. Kerry, you have identified an entirely foreseeable problem. Where will the school buses and bus drivers come from at such short notice? This is going to be a total fiasco.

  2. Face it. A year is lost. Everybody repeats a grade come fall 2021. You go to third grade this fall….and again next fall. Maybe this fall you are able to do the catch up work on all the lost time in second grade. Maybe.

  3. “If the governor wants only 13 kids on a bus, let him find the dough to pay for a new fleet of buses.”
    The Dough would come from hard working taxpayers like myself.
    The emergency is over… Time for this nonsense to stop…
    PS… Kerry, do you remember the big Zone 1 hurricane evacuation two years ago under King Ralph. His first fiasco. ..

  4. James Wyatt Whitehead V

    Most high schools are on some version of the block schedule. So on Monday you have 85 minute classes 1,2,3,4. Tuesday you have classes 5,6,7,8. So they will likely take it on this way. Monday half of the kids in blocks 1,2,3,4 show up at school for in person instruction. The other half stay home that Monday for virtual learning. Repeat for Tuesday classes. In this model you will not need to haul all high school kids to school every day. Middle school has a similar block type of classes. I assume the same would be rigged for elementary school. The guidance directors and master schedulers have the ultimate rubix cube to solve and they have to solve it by mid August.

    • James Wyatt Whitehead V

      Neighborhood schools were kids can safely walk will likely not offer the bus ride. With the shuffling of students as outlined above there will be a need for more drivers but it will not be as bad as you think. It will be a logistical nightmare for the school systems directors of transportation. Hyper mothers and fathers are probably going to drive kids to school anyways to be extra safe. I think you will see an increase in teen drivers to school. I think many teen drivers will be in charge of driving younger siblings to elementary and middle school before heading off to high school. At Briar Woods HS you paid 250 bucks for parking at school privilege. I expect that cost to rise to help pay for the transportation nightmare. The bean counters will also have to factor in “equity”. No kidding. It is the driving force in Loudoun County School policy making now.

  5. This is rich. The very people, who railed against busing, are now complaining there ain’t enough.

    $10 per bus and the problem is solved. Two 12-cent stainless self-tapping machine screws through the window frames holding the widows half opened converts the bus to an outdoor environment.

  6. Some good points regarding the two options that localities across VA (and presumably the nation) are considering:

    1- Part time/alternating in person-virtual
    2- full time virtual learning 4 days, with one day for independent study.
    Option 1 issues are the ones discussed above – issue with buses and their costs but others not mentioned – will kids wear masks at school? Will they distance in classes and hallways and cafeteria? Will teachers and other staff distance from students?

    All of which tells me that option 1 is not going to happen, and in fact when discussing this with in-laws concerning their rising senior in Fairfax County (who asked for parental input on these two options) we both agreed that option 2 is the only way to go for a number of reasons both personal and practical.

    Having said that, the problems with option 2 are as noted here – the digital divide and economic divide makes this option seriously hurt those families without means for Internet connection and in-home supervision adequate for a home schooling with school assist option.

    So there should be a cost consideration too (who knows how in 60 days, not going to happen) to upgrade the digital connection and capabilities of those homes without and compensation to Aunties and Uncles (like me) who are taking this role for virtual learning. And that is not going to happen.

    So, all the big-brained writers and commenters on here need to come up with some solutions that actually address the problem at hand – an unprecedented solution that VA and every other state has never had to consider before and has no contingency plans to address, rather than shooting at their favorite political targets.

    There is inadequate leadership in power at many state and localities and at the national level, and also on prominent blogs that shout from the bleachers – you suck!

    • “So, all the big-brained writers and commenters on here need to come up with some solutions that actually address the problem at hand – an unprecedented solution that VA and every other state has never had to consider before and has no contingency plans to address, rather than shooting at their favorite political targets.”

      I always find it fascinating when somebody decides that taxpayer – voters shouldn’t demand that the large army of government employees who oversee a government that spends almost 40% of US GDP should not be held accountable for solving problems.

  7. Here is Orange County’s reopening plan (about 5000 studens):

    Preliminary planning in Orange County indicates that families should prepare for the following:

    PreK, K, 1, 2, and 3 will attend school face-to-face two days per week
    Students with disabilities (PreK-12) will attend face-to-face two days per week

    English Language Learners (PreK-12 ELL) will attend school face-to-face two days per week

    When the PreK-3 students, students with disabilities, and ELL students are not attending face-to-face, they will be attending virtually through the Canvas learning management system on their school-issued Chromebook.

    All other students in grades 4 through 12 will start school on August 10 with the new Canvas learning management system on a school-issued Chromebook. The students in grades 4-12 will attend virtually until further notice.


  8. Lots of rehashing on this issue in the comments. See https://www.baconsrebellion.com/wp/open-the-schools/ for my take. What I asked was that schools consider the actual CDC back to school guidelines – the reopening decision tree and the safety at school guidelines.

    As to the school bus issue, I have several comments.
    1. no set of rules can be written by adults that will keep children six feet apart – at home, at school or on the bus.
    2. rules that require children to pretend to sit six feet apart on a school bus will de facto eliminate school buses as a viable transportation mechanism. The schools will have to remain closed.
    3. Requiring children to wear masks on the bus is necessary. I have asked CDC to comment on the use of face shields vs. masks and they have agreed to do so. CDC initially ruled out the use of face shields for any purpose but medical use. Now the nation has enormous capacity that does not depend upon foreign materials in manufacture and offers adult and child-sized face shields in lot sizes from 5 to multiples of 1000.
    4. Requiring each child to have her temperature taken before boarding the bus is a good idea that can work, but will require an aide garbed in PPE to ride each bus for that purpose.
    5. putting up plastic shields between seats like we see in businesses now is currently illegal in most places because it interferes with the driver’s ability to monitor the children. Perhaps the laws can be modified if the aides described above are onboard.
    6. Requiring some level of window openings to maintain fresh air flow will help. Install rain shields. The children are dressed for cold weather.
    7. Many more parents than historically have done so will drive their children to and from school now, so make accommodations for that increased traffic flow. It is hard to predict how much of this will happen, so poll the parents and attempt to find out. This will reduce the demand on buses and the routes and schedules can be adapted to the new demand.
    8. Consider increasing the radius of allowable walkers. I don’t know how each school does that, but years ago when my kids were in elementary school, the radius was I thought unnecessarily small.

    • Walk to school? Uh, have you been paying attention? We lived across the street from the elementary in a Chesterfield neighborhood (there was even a tunnel under the street), and families put their kids on the bus……You pegged it with #7, everybody will try to drive their kids to school (and then the state will go eeeeek and prevent car pooling…)

      • Kids got it lucky. When I rode the bus it was a city bus. Gave us a little book of green tickets which amount to one bus one ticket. The only “school buses” had some Baptist church name on it. They were governed to 55 mph, and that’s what they did… on the interstate and in the neighborhoods.

    • “6. Requiring some level of window openings to maintain fresh air flow will help. Install rain shields. The children are dressed for cold weather.”

      Cold weather? Thank god for global warming, eh? Rain shields? You obviously never had last period gym.

      • yeah, some of Jim’s suggestions are “fun”! 😉

        Actually, my bet is the schools are open to any/all “ideas” from whoever… any number can play this game…. and will…

        • Remember “The Naked City”? “There are 8 million stories in the Naked City…”. That was the population of NYC.
          Well, it’s the population of Virginia. “There are 8 million solutions in…”

          • there will be no shortage of “ideas” from far and wide… and some of them may actually have merit….

            hey, I’m waiting for that new design bus without a roof and rain-shields! 😉

            and who knew that buses, transit and uber type cars would all have to have onboard disinfectant systems?

          • Nancy_Naive

            Open bed in a pickup? Too dangerous. Pickup full of yardbirds heading home to NC went off the HRBT. 6 drown. Couldn’t get the tailgate opened.

  9. re: the CDC guidelines – and real world implementation.

    Jim illustrates this with his 8 point suggestion. This kind of process will be taking place at every school just for school buses.

    Add in things like lunch, playground, title 1 classes, etc… and basically, we’re reinventing the way that schools “work” – on the fly as the science evolves…. and it ain’t going to be like it was before…..

    And this means that the rest of family life with regard to work, home and school is going to change… and a whole bunch of unhappy and angry folks. bad times ahead.

  10. We should look at what is happening in Europe, which is beginning to open its schools. So far, it seems that opening the schools has not led to an increase in overall infections. https://www.politico.eu/article/early-school-reopenings-coronavirus-covid-19/

    There are a lot of approaches being taken in Europe. In one town in Germany, high school students self-administer coronavirus tests.

    Virginia should give its school districts flexibility and, I agree with Jim Sherlock, tell them the best guide is that from CDC.

  11. Fairfax County plans to offer parents a choice of 100% virtual learning or 2-days/week in-person learning. Teachers will also get to vote. There have been articles in the Washington Post stating Fairfax teachers are against in-person teaching.

    We will see how this plays out. https://www.fcps.edu/returntoschool

    • I wonder what happens if several teachers come down with COVID19 at the same time in a school.

      Do they shut down? Do they hire more teachers?

      Yes, I’ve read that some teachers don’t want to return unless their safety is assured and some parents don’t want their kids back to school physically either and other parents who do will stop sending their kids to school if there is an outbreak.

      I note this from WSJ:
      ” Some U.S. school districts have halted meal deliveries to students following the deaths of two delivery bus drivers and growing worries over worker safety.

      Now, these districts—closed due to the coronavirus pandemic—are rethinking food distribution, citing the spread of the virus and difficulty maintaining social distancing while handing out meals.

      “We didn’t know if we could assure the safety of our students, their families or our bus drivers,” said Kevin Hampton, spokesman in the Ferguson-Florissant School District in Missouri, which suspended food deliveries by bus last week.”

      this potential is a concern at the school itself… also… especially
      if parents will bring their kids and the kids essentially transfer the virus
      from their parents to school personnel.

    • Yes think it was Ffx Co. school was in the WTOP news this morning…teacher’s attorney saying risk of COVID too high for teacher workplace safety. I guess Ffx trying to see if there are some students/teachers willing to meet (2 days) while letting the others opt out.

  12. I was struck by the attitude of some of the teachers that they did not consider the current plan “safe”.

    Makes me wonder if we’re going to see teachers in other school systems that feel similar or is this a Fairfax “thing”?

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