School buses in coronavirus pandemic
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In addition to mask-wearing and social distancing stickers, the Upper St. Clair School District buses have hand-sanitizer and gloves on board, and they get sanitized three times per day, after each drop-off. 

Every day when Mike Gielata arrives to work, he and other school bus drivers in the Upper St. Clair School District near Pittsburgh are asked to undergo a symptom screening.

“When we first get to work in the morning,” Gielata, the president of the Upper St. Clair School District Bus Operators Union (under the National Education Association), told COURIER, “we sign an ‘employee acknowledgment,’ which basically means we answer questions about whether you’ve been around anyone who’s sick, if you’ve traveled, how you’re feeling, and if you have a temperature.”

Gielata previously worked with the Pittsburgh Port Authority as a supervisor, and he believes the school district and transportation department have created a proactive approach to reopening schools in the coronavirus pandemic. The “employee acknowledgment” form is completed every single morning by the staff at the school bus garage as the first measure of safety for the day.

Public transportation has seen a dramatic decrease in operations across the country since the onset of the coronavirus crisis. With the 2020-21 academic school year underway, buses are required to operate at a limited, socially-distanced capacity to protect themselves and students from COVID-19. 

Bus riding during a pandemic has been a source of concern for parents nationwide, and school bus drivers—like teachers and other school staff—are putting their own health at risk to perform their jobs.

Gielata said there is now a lockbox outside of the garage where he works, so employees don’t have to enter the building—they can just grab their set of keys and depart for their respective bus routes. Once on the bus, Upper St. Clair bus drivers and students must wear a mask at all times.

“We carry extra masks just in case,” Gielata explained. “A couple of students a week forget them, especially the younger kids. We will pass them out and I tell them they can keep them for a spare one.”

“School buses tend to feel like a test tube for germs.” 

Upper St. Clair is currently operating under a “hybrid” educational model for the 2020-21 school year, which means half the student population attends in-person on Mondays and Tuesdays, with remote learning the rest of the week. The other half attends in-person Thursday and Fridays. According to the school’s website, the “reduced daily in-person enrollment will enable classroom seating of at least six feet apart.” Students at the district also have the option to be fully remote.

This enables students who ride the bus to school to socially distance in accordance with guidelines suggested by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Gielata said his buses operate under a color-coded sticker system that indicates where each student may sit safely. Siblings are allowed to sit together since they live in the same household, but everyone else must separate. 

In addition to mask-wearing and social distancing stickers, the Upper St. Clair School District buses have hand-sanitizer and gloves on board, and they get sanitized three times per day, after each drop-off. 

The district’s pandemic-related busing outline states that with the exception of kindergarteners, students load from back to front and unload from front to back. Kindergarten students are seated toward the front of the bus. During the ride, and weather permitting, the windows and overhead hatches will remain open for proper ventilation and air circulation. 

Without the hybrid model cutting back on busloads, there wouldn’t be a way for students to socially distance themselves. “If every student rode the bus, I’d have about 38 students on my high school load, 33 for middle school, and 52 for elementary,” Gielata said. 

The Risks Facing Drivers

More than 370,000 people worked as a school bus driver in 2018, according to the US Labor Department, and according to the AARP, 73% of them are 55 years old and older. 

Because coronavirus disproportionately affects older people, that means a majority of the workers responsible for safely ferrying children between their homes and their schools twice a day are at risk of getting seriously sick.

And, as one New York City school bus union president told Mother Jones: “School buses tend to feel like a test tube for germs.” 

In the weeks since schools began reopening, reports of bus drivers testing positive for the virus have steadily trickled in. There was one confirmed case this week in the Madison County School system in Huntsville, Alabama; two in the Waterbury Public School system in Connecticut. Bus drivers in Dubuque, Iowa; Okeechobee, Florida; and Peoria, Arizona, have also been sickened with the virus, triggering bus route closures and concern. 

One driver in the Russellville School District in Arkansas, Terry Thacker, died after testing positive, though officials believe he may have contracted the virus before school began.

Though Upper St. Clair spent the summer coming up with a plan to ensure the safety and wellbeing of all staff and students, Gielata said a few drivers chose to not return prior to the start of the school year—presumably out of concern for COVID-19. “One driver, who’s in his early seventies, decided to retire because he only has one lung,” he said. 

RELATED: Trump Keeps Lying About COVID and Kids As Schools Struggle To Report Case Numbers

With no national strategy in place to protect schools or offer guidance on how to operate in-person during a pandemic, K-12 school districts across the country have been left scrambling to devise their own plans for reopening this fall. This week, the Government Accountability Office (GAO), Congress’ auditing arm, released a report that criticized the CDC’s guidance on school reopenings as being “inconsistent” and “contradictory,” and encouraged the agency—which has been called out for becoming politicized—to do better.

Meanwhile, President Donald Trump has continued to minimize the threat of the coronavirus, which has now killed more than 200,000 Americans. During a campaign rally in Ohio on Monday, Trump falsely asserted that only older and ill people are seriously impacted by the virus.

“It affects elderly people, elderly people with heart problems, if they have other problems, that’s what it really affects, in some states thousands of people—nobody young—below the age of 18, like nobody—they have a strong immune system—who knows?” Trump said.

“It affects virtually nobody,” he added. “It’s an amazing thing—by the way, open your schools!”

Despite the president’s misleading assurances that returning to school is safe, the data is unclear on just how many students have contracted COVID-19. The Covid Monitor—an independent tracking site that compiles its data through a combination of submissions from school districts, individual schools, news reports, and the public—reports more than 24,000 positive cases in K-12 schools, including students, teachers, and staff. 

Although the majority of people who contract COVID-19 end up with mild symptoms, there’s still so much we don’t know about the virus. At least six teachers have died from related complications. Most public schools have only been operating for a few weeks, and outbreaks have already triggered mass quarantines, school closures, and back-and-forth switches between in-person learning and virtual learning at home.

Should a school bus driver fall ill with the virus, Gielata said the plan in his district is to use substitute drivers while the ill driver recovers. “We’re short a couple drivers because [some retired], but we have some sub drivers,” he explained. “Our mechanics drive, and even the secretary of the garage has her CDL with an ‘S’ endorsement, which is what you need to drive a school bus.”

Gielata said the Upper St. Clair School District Bus Operators Union spent the summer trying to prepare parents and students for the school year by organizing videos full of information about safety procedures. 

It’s clear the school community, particularly the elementary school students he’s been driving to school for five years, is important to him. Gielata is especially dedicated to helping the children feel safe and as normal as possible while riding the bus this year.

“The kids that started with me in kindergarten are now in fourth grade,” he said. “You get, like, a relationship with them, you know what I mean?”

READ MORE: The Risk of Reopening Schools Is Far Greater for Black and Brown Americans