BOSTON (CBS) — Riding the school bus will likely look very different for Massachusetts students this fall. The Department of Elementary and Secondary Education has released new guidance on school transportation that calls for keeping students masked and socially distant from one another as the state targets a safe return to the classroom amid the coronavirus pandemic.
Bus drivers unions from Worcester to Boston say some of the guidelines are not practical.
“I want to get the kids to school. I want them to be safe, and that’s how I do my job every day. But what they’re telling us we should be doing, personally, I wouldn’t be able to do that,” said Jennifer O’Connor.
O’Connor drives school buses in Worcester and belongs to the Teamsters Local 170. The union represents nearly 500 bus drivers across the state. Union leader Ken Bergen said their drivers want to get back to work but there are concerns for members who are in high-risk categories.
“We have to consider all the information and analyze. And consider what the ramifications are for both our members and the student population that they transport. We definitely want everyone to be as safe as possible,” Bergen said.
According to the guidelines, all students and staff on the bus must wear face masks “regardless of age,” the guidance states. Exemptions will only be made for students with medical or behavioral excuses.
Only one student is allowed per “bench” on the bus, unless those students are from the same household. The guidance says students should be assigned to a particular seat. Capacity will be capped at 32% for a bus that typically seats 77.
Windows on the bus will be kept open at all times – barring “extreme weather conditions – to improve ventilation.
It’s also recommended that school districts add a monitor to each bus to make sure students are following the rules.
“Drivers are not health care professionals. It’s gonna be very hard to analyze everyone. Anyone that’s been on a school bus in any time of their life knows it’s kind of like a playground,” Bergen said.
How will school districts handle getting every student to school with these requirements? Many schools are considering new start and dismissal times to accommodate the changes. Parents should also be encouraged to seek alternative transportation to school, if possible. The state says each school district should be coming up with a transportation plan that follows their protocols.
Teachers in Boston, a district that relies heavily on transportation, say shrinking bus capacity will mean needing more buses.
“We have 55,000 students and hundreds of buses that are bringing students to schools. We just don’t have enough buses,” said Jessica Tang, president of the Boston Teachers Union (BTU).
BTU, the American Federation of Teachers and the Massachusetts Teachers Association are pushing for a phased re-opening. They say teachers need time for professional development and to meet individually with families before the resumption of learning.
Tang said another big undertaking will be upgrading facilities to comply with new health standards. (DESE) guidelines call for cleaning shared spaces daily and disinfecting high touch surfaces several times a day. Districts are also being asked to work on increasing outdoor ventilation, instead of using recirculated air.
“Our classrooms, even if they do have windows many of them don’t open or are not safe to open,” Tang said. “These are the same buildings that just a few years ago we had to negotiate in our contract that we would have soap, warm water and paper towels.”