ITHACA, N.Y. — Much of the discussion around returning to school has been focused on what will happen in the classroom, as educators continue to voice their concerns over COVID-19 safety protocols and families of students worry over the ability of schools to keep their children safe when in-person learning resumes in October. But under the radar, there has been the impending experience of bus drivers and monitors — two groups that will necessarily be in close contact with students during morning and afternoon commutes — but won’t benefit from the extensive safety upgrades that the school district is installing in several ICSD school buildings. 

To mitigate safety concerns on buses, the district has implemented new protocols, which will include a portable barrier around bus drivers, assigned seating for children that will keep them six feet apart (and assist with contact tracing in the event of a positive test), a mask requirement and distribution of masks to staff and students who board the bus without one. In order to increase air flow on the bus, the district is recommending that drivers open the hatch on the roof of the bus and lower front and back windows while driving, at least when possible considering weather conditions, as well as utilizing fans to boost circulation. At least for September, drivers’ jobs will be very different, too: instead of toting kids back and forth from school, they will be delivering materials to all students who will be learning virtually in ICSD until the schools open in October. 

“We will be very busy but a very different busy than we are used to in September,” ICSD Transportation Director Elizabeth Berner said. 

When the school year begins in earnest as it is scheduled to in October, bus drivers, aides, mechanics and transportation office staff will be supplied with surgical masks, cloth masks, shields, safety glasses, gloves, hand sanitizer, gowns and disinfecting products readily available to them through the district. Drivers and aides will be tasked with disinfecting the buses twice a day, once in the morning and once in the afternoon, and drivers will clean handrails, seat tops and other frequently touched areas between runs. 

The district is also facing its annual struggle to recruit bus drivers, a common problem for school districts statewide. ICSD Employee Association President Chris Horstman said the level of need for drivers will become more clear over the next few weeks. He said there are five drivers currently being trained who will all be eligible to drive once the school year begins, but that the district will still need about 10 more in order to be fully staffed; open interviews for bus driver positions are being held on Sept. 12 and 17 from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. at the ICSD bus garage. 

Berner seemed confident that, informed by the number of students coming to classrooms for in-person learning and how many aren’t, daily bus routes won’t need to be significantly changed in order to handle the new distancing guidelines that will shrink bus capacity. While buses can normally carry around 56 students, this year they will be limited to a maximum of 17 per trip. 

“We are trying to keep our transportation system as ‘normal’ as possible,” Berner said. “Due to fewer students requesting transportation for this school year, we will be able to provide transportation with minimal changes and may actually be able to cut some routes from last year.” 

Horstman acknowledged that he’s heard concerns from bus drivers, some of whom are resistant to driving buses this year because of fears over the pandemic and potentially contracting the virus from students. He said he was not yet certain of the specific number of drivers that were concerned to the point of declining to drive.

“It really is about keeping the people safe who are on those routes,” Horstman said. “With this unprecedented pandemic, there are going to be people that don’t feel comfortable doing a job, and those people are definitely being talked to and finding out what we can do to help them.”

Similar to Horstman, Education Support Professionals/Ithaca liaison Richard Peet, who helps represent ESP/I union members within the district, said he has been approached by members of the 30-person bus monitor staff, who ride in every bus carrying children enrolled in special education programs. He said that so far, a “relatively low percentage” of monitors have come to him with fears of contraction, particularly considering that monitors (and drivers, for that matter) spend about two hours on buses with students in the morning and between 3-4 hours dropping them off in the afternoon. To allay those concerns, Peet said people with verified medical concerns who could be at increased risk of severe illness if they contract coronavirus may be allowed to ride buses without students, helping the district in a different capacity. 

“I have had a couple (monitors) address concerns about their health and medical issues that they might be facing, or that their loved ones may be facing,” Peet said. He said the concerns are valid, though he is personally not worried about contracting the disease. “There was discussions about having dedicated routes available for people with medical concerns who have provided medical documentation, and those routes would be strictly to deliver mail and school supplies to students who are doing distance learning.”

With just over a month before the first day of in-person learning, there are still some issues hanging in the air, including how many bus drivers feel uncomfortable despite the precautions put into place by ICSD, even if the vast majority of bus monitors feel safely reassured. 

“Everything changes day to day with this, school hasn’t started,” Horstman said. “We haven’t really transported a group of students any larger than the 50 we did over the summer since March. What’s that look like with everybody’s safety [getting] taken into consideration? Hopefully, we do a good enough job to keep people safe and keep them willing to come back.”

Matt Butler

Matt Butler is the Education & Public Health Reporter at the Ithaca Voice. He can be reached by email at mbutler@ithacavoice.com