After Sitting Idle For Months, School Buses Are Slowly Getting Back On The Road
At Poway Unified School District’s transportation center, 152 school buses are parked in long rows. Before the pandemic arrived in March, these buses transported more than 4,000 students a day. But the district’s bus routes came to a halt when campuses closed.
Now they’re finally revving up their engines again.
Since mid-October when the district opened its elementary schools, busses have been taking about 500 students to and from school. Kim Denson, a bus driver with the district, said she had concerns at first about how the kids would react to the new rules.
“Were they gonna be able to keep a face mask on? Were they gonna be able to social distance themselves? How were they going to react to screenings in the morning?” she said. “I drive special needs and it can be a little more trying for them than other kids.”
But so far Denson says she has felt completely safe during her routes. Students are prescreened with temperature and symptom checks before boarding and they’re doing a good job following the rules.
It also helps that the transportation department has taken cleanliness to a new level. After students leave the bus, she sprays a special disinfectant onto every surface and lets it sit for five minutes. She also wipes down the handrails and her steering wheel.
“I drive to two schools, a high school and an elementary school. My children are all good,” Denson said. “They’ve adapted very well.”
In addition to drivers disinfecting surfaces after each trip, buses get a deep cleaning every 24 hours with a device that looks like it came out of Ghostbusters. Tyler Bouquet, a vehicle maintenance coordinator at Poway Unified, demonstrated how the electrostatic fog disinfectant works.
“This machine puts out a fog, so it’s gonna cover every corner and under the seat,” Bouquet said. “The electrostatic part causes them to stick to every surface in the bus. Even if you don’t point it at the surface, it’s still going to fog out and touch everything and stick to it and make sure every surface comes in contact with disinfectant.”
But all of this has come at a cost. The transportation department has spent more than 45,000 dollars on COVID-related supplies. And the district has so far lost over a million dollars in revenue due to the large drop in bus-pass sales.
Tim Purvis, Poway Unified’s transportation director, said he hopes that as time goes on and more students return to in-person learning, parents will feel more comfortable with sending their kids to school on the bus.
“We want our students back on our buses. We don’t want the parents feeling like they have to drive their child in their automobile and get clogged in the traffic at our school sites,” Purvis said. “We want them to have that same confidence that when they’re ready to return their child to a PUSD school site, that includes the bus to go with it.”
Poway Unified is certainly not alone as it grapples with a return to bussing. Cajon Valley Union in East County lost 80% of its bus riders even with a full reopening.
“The problem with the transportation departments is that we’re completely dependent on kids,” said Tysen Brodwolf Cajon Valley Union’s transportation director. “If the kids aren’t going to school, the drivers don’t have a job.”
Brodwolf said that just before COVID-19 shut down San Diego County’s schools, the district had negotiated no layoffs with the union representing the bus drivers. Luckily, she said, her team was able to find work for bus drivers while buses weren’t operating.
Drivers have been dispersed throughout the district to deliver meals, clean buses or assist with symptom screening at school entrances.
At San Diego Unified, a limited number of schools have opened for in-person instruction, and a small number of students are riding the bus regularly. For the most part, the district’s school buses have been used to deliver food and school supplies.
Back in Poway, Kim Denson says all parents can feel secure about sending their kids to school on a school bus.
“All the bus drivers are doing their part to make sure their kids are safe on the bus, and that they’re all social distancing and wearing their mask,” she said. “All the children and the bus drivers are doing their part to keep everything safe.”