Unit 5 and District 87 will soon start busing kids to school for the first time since the pandemic began in March. They are the last districts in McLean County to bring kids back to the classroom, and administrators believe they can keep them safe on the buses as long as students follow the rules.
Diana Tackett has driven students to school in the Olympia district for 16 years. Olympia covers much of western McLean County. Students returned to the classroom at the start of the school year. Tackett said social distancing and other protocols are not hard to enforce.
“The kids don’t seem to mind it much,” Tackett said. “I think it’s more us because we are adults, we don’t deal with change that well. It’s a little different, but we’re all working at it. We’re doing good.”
In Olympia schools, bus aides do the heavy lifting on COVID enforcement. Every bus has one now. The aides take student temperatures before they board the bus and make sure masks stay on.
Aide Dawn Jones said she worried it would be too much to manage, but the kids have made it easy.
“I think we are all thinking that, with everything going on it was just going to be a lot to handle, but the kids have done really well,” Jones said.
It's hard to distance on a bus. That's a big risk for students. Olympia covers 377 square miles. Some students are on the bus for nearly an hour each way. The state says 15 minutes is high risk to spread the coronavirus.
Assistant Superintendent Andy Walsh oversees Olympia transportation. He said the district moved to a later start time for middle and high school to separate routes and get kids off the bus faster.
“Going to the elementary building and dropping them off and then going back out for the second run for the middle school and high school kids and getting them out here to the middle school and high school, we’ve been able to keep our students off the bus before that hour-long bus ride We understand it’s still a significantly long bus ride,” Walsh said.
The aides do not allow students who show a fever on the bus. Walsh said parents have to come get them.
“We have sent out communication before the year started letting parents know, please don’t pull away from the bus stop until you see the bus departing because if there’s a situation where a child has a fever, we want to get that child back to the parents as quickly as possible,” Walsh said.
Bloomington-Normal public schools have different bus policies.
First Student is the bus provider for Unit 5. First Student area general manager Chris Coyle said only some drivers will have an aide. Parents will have to do the daily health screening for their child. If they don't, the driver turns the kids into the district at school.
“Making sure that we don’t put a student that’s showing sign of any kind of COVID symptoms, they really shouldn’t be riding the bus,” Coyle said.
But they will still be on the bus. Unit 5 Superintendent Kristen Weikle said each bus will have two empty rows in front where kids who do not turn in certification papers can sit. Other students will have to pass by to get to an assigned seat.
Weikle said each driver will have extra masks for students who don't have one, but they won't be expected to police compliance, unless there's a clear violation or illness.
“The bus driver might radio his or her supervisor and we may have to meet the bus somewhere to address that situation, but if a student is not having symptoms and it’s a refusal, we’ll handle that like any other discipline matter,” Weikle said.
Coyle said a safe bus starts with a clean bus. Staff disinfects them before each shift. The state caps buses at 50 people. Coyle thinks they can get their occupancy down to 40.
“We are also having family members share seats, so that will minimize a lot of the impact of any potential above 40 students (seated) in rows,” Coyle said.
First Student has struggled with overcrowded buses for years. But Coyle says he thinks they can do it without additional routes for Unit 5 because a quarter of the students will learn entirely online. Others will drive themselves.
Jeff Gordon runs District 87's transportation for Illinois Central School Bus. They hope to keep buses at 45 students. In fact, he said 45 is the target every year. This year, Gordon said they will keep windows open until it gets cold to improve air flow.
Most drivers in District 87 won't have aides, so drivers will have to collect student health certification forms.
“Hopefully everybody has them,” Gordon said. “It’s going be trial and error.”
But Gordon said like in Unit 5, no District 87 child will be left behind. Illinois Central will keep the first two rows empty for any student who doesn't self-certify, or has COVID symptoms. They will go straight to the school nurse.
Gordon said all 54 drivers and nearly two dozen aides came back this year. Coyle at First Student said some drivers decided it wasn't worth the health risk, butt added they'll have enough drivers, even if some get sick.
“We’ve got some folks that chose not to come back,” Coyle said. “I think the bigger factor is what we are doing to recruit new people that may not have those concerns.”
In Olympia, school administrators said busing students during the pandemic has worked because students and parents have bought in. The alternative is going all online and most Olympia parents say they don't want that. Only 15 percent of Olympia families took the virtual option. Jones said she tries to keep kids healthy by presenting a good attitude.
“Be positive and the kids will be fine. Don’t stress and show them you are all stressed and you’re not happy about wearing a mask and gloves and taking temperatures because they (see) that,” Jones said.
Often, the driver aide is the first school face a student sees every morning, even if that face is behind a mask.
Walsh said the district has had fewer than 10 coronavirus cases and all were isolated cases.
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