FRANKTON — As schools and districts plan for the return to in-person instruction for those families that choose it in the fall, bus service is proving to be a particularly tricky issue because of the measures necessary to keep students safe amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
Frankton-Lapel Superintendent Bobby Fields said he didn’t even bother calculating the potential cost of social distancing on his district’s fleet of 34 district-owned school buses because there was no point in the district entertaining the possibility. The district transports about 1,600 students, or about half the population, he said.
“The buses are one place where it is impossible to properly social distance. We cannot afford to, nor do we have the time to make several bus trips per day to properly social distance on school buses,” he said. “With the budget being so tight for transportation, and in many years seeing cost overruns under normal operating conditions, we knew we could not afford any scenarios that would increase transportation costs.”
Bus service is a convenience for many families, but for some who don’t own vehicles and live far from the schools, it’s crucial to their child’s ability to get an education.
However, children are a vector for disease, which is why schools and districts closed to in-person instruction around spring break as the pandemic hit Indiana. In an age in which Hoosiers are trying to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus, social distancing remains an important measure, but on school buses on a time schedule, that is nearly impossible, school officials say.
But just as impossible, superintendents in Madison County said, is making any cost-prohibitive plan that changes the routes or the number of students transported in a single trip.
In early June, the Department of Education released “Indiana’s Considerations for Learning and Safe Schools,” a document that provides guidance based on recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Association for Pupil Transportation. Bus service is a major part of the plan, though the recommendations, such as having staff and students wear masks, are not required and may be considered unfeasible for some.
The state’s plan recommends that schools and districts work with local health departments.
It suggests schools and districts determine whether placing barriers between the driver and passengers is feasible, disinfection using products recommended by the CDC before and after each route, and waiting 24 hours before cleaning and disinfecting a vehicle that has transported someone who has tested positive for COVID-19.
“We are going to run our buses and encourage drivers and students to wear appropriate personal protective equipment. We will educate bus drivers and parents about self-screening before boarding a bus. We will also institute a more rigorous cleaning and disinfecting schedule for our buses,” Fields said.
Most school districts already report annual cost overruns in their transportation budgets.
For instance, Anderson Community Schools, which contracts for the use of 78 buses from several entities, takes in approximately $800,000 in taxes to cover roughly $4,500,000 in costs, said interim Superintendent Joe Cronk. At Alexandria Community Schools, cost overruns average about $50,000 per year, Superintendent Melissa Brisco said.
Most buses can transport around up to 70 students, depending on whether they are elementary or secondary levels.
“Given our costs, social distancing on buses just cannot be done,” Cronk said. “If we had to add additional shifts to our busing, costs go up exponentially.”
Unlike districts in other communities, such as Alexandria, ACS does not have any walk zones and transports 5,600 of its 6,600 students by bus.
Most districts have surveyed parents about their plans and needs over the pandemic period and for re-opening planning, but most of the surveys have not addressed the issue of transportation, the superintendents reported.
The one exception is Alexandria, which transports about 1,000 students daily on 18 buses, eight of which are owned by the district and transport students within the city and 10 of which are contracted through owner-operators to pick up students in rural areas. According to district policy, elementary students are provided transportation unless they live in the neighborhood surrounding the school, while secondary students are expected to walk up to a half mile to the school.
“The survey results that we have so far, approximately 38% of parents claim they will be transporting their own students,” Alexandria’s Brisco said.
One district that is considering the addition of a route to allow for better social distancing among students it transports from two towns and surrounding rural areas is Madison-Grant United School Corp.
“We are still developing procedures in the area of loading and unloading, masks, and the specific cleaning procedures after each route,” said Superintendent Scott Deetz.
Most districts, including Madison-Grant, report they plan allow students to continue to drive to school and have no plans to limit students from driving people outside their own households.
“Students with a valid license are able to drive to school. However, there is no policy that dictates who students can and cannot ride with to school,” Deetz said.