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After Sitting Idle For Months, School Buses Are Slowly Getting Back On The Road

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In Poway Unified, the transportation department has taken cleanliness to a new level as it promises students safe rides to and from school.

Speaker 1: 00:00 When the pandemic first closed down San Diego County schools, it meant school buses were left idle for months, but as districts have gradually resumed in person instruction, transportation departments had to figure out how to keep their buses, virus free KPBS education reporter Joe Hong visited one district to learn how it's taken a cleanliness to a whole new level

Speaker 2: 00:23 At Pella unified school districts, 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 campus is closed. Now months later, they're finally rubbing up their engines again, since the district reopened its elementary schools in mid-October buses have been taking about 500 students to and from school. Kim Benson is a bus driver with the district. She said she had some concerns at first about how the kids would react to the news.

Speaker 3: 00:57 Where are they going to be able to keep a face mask on? Are they going to be able to social distance themselves? You know, um, how they were just going to react to a screening them inside the mornings and everything. So I drive special needs and it can be a little bit more trying for them than other kids.

Speaker 2: 01:14 But so far, Benson has felt completely safe during our routes. Students are pre-screened with temperature and symptom checks before boarding, and they're doing a good job of following the rules. She says it also helps that the department is being extra careful with hygiene.

Speaker 3: 01:28 So what we do is after each best disembark, every child, disembarks the bus and we come up, we just go up and we have to make sure that every seat is just sprayed down. Okay? And this has to sit on here for five minutes.

Speaker 2: 01:48 In addition to drivers, disinfecting surfaces, after each trip, buses get a deep cleaning every 24 hours with a device that looks like he came out of Ghostbusters. Tyler bouquet is a vehicle maintenance coordinator at Poway unified.

Speaker 4: 02:01 This machine puts out a fog. And so it's going to cover every knee corner under the seat, anywhere in the bus is going to be covered in disinfectant places. You normally wouldn't be able to reach by hand, or you may miss in the process,

Speaker 2: 02:13 He's wearing a backpack attached to something that looks like a hairdryer that shoots out in electrostatic fog

Speaker 4: 02:19 Stack part causes them to stick to every surface in the bus. So you don't have to eat. If you don't point that surface, it's still gonna fog out and touch everything and stick to it and make sure every surface is, uh, come, come in contact with disinfecting.

Speaker 2: 02:33 These disinfecting measures have come at a cost for power unified. The transportation department has spent more than $45,000 on COVID related supplies. The district has also lost over a million dollars in revenue from the lack of bus pass sales. Tim Purvis is the transportation director at the district,

Speaker 4: 02:50 The students back on our buses. And, um, uh, we don't want the parent feeling that they have to drive their child and their automobile

Speaker 5: 03:00 And getting clogged in that traffic at our school sites and everything. We want them to have that same confidence at them when they're ready to return their child to a PUSD school site. That includes the bus to go with it.

Speaker 2: 03:11 They'll face an even greater challenge if and when the district opens middle and high schools, but purpose says they're ready

Speaker 5: 03:18 Or is key in this absolutely key. And the parent having that confidence of that driver's assuring the safety of their child.

Speaker 2: 03:26 The districts are also grappling with how to figure out bus operations, Cahone Val union, a K through eight district in East County reopened all of its schools in September, but lost 80% of its bus writers 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. However, the district school buses have been used to deliver food and school supplies.

Speaker 1: 03:50 Joining me is KPBS education reporter Joe Hong and Joe. Welcome. Thanks for having me. Is there anyone besides the driver on Poway unified buses that monitors, if the kids are keeping their distance and wearing their masks,

Speaker 2: 04:07 Besides the bus driver, a lot of these buses, um, all of all buses that have, uh, special education students on them have an aid, other buses with just general education students. Also a lot of them do have an aid as well, who sort of helped maintain social distance and, uh, made sure students are keeping their masks on and things like that. And so far, the district has told me that they, they haven't really had any problems so far.

Speaker 1: 04:35 Is this all a lot of extra responsibility for the bus drivers?

Speaker 2: 04:39 You know, I, I visited the transportation center and I watched the bus drivers clean, uh, her bus and wipe down the surfaces and things like that. And I mean, to me, it does, it does look like considerable amount of extra effort that we're putting into, but you know, the bus drivers seem happy to do it as long as they're able to see the kids again and get them safely to school,

Speaker 1: 05:01 Has the district has Poway unified set a limit on how many students can be on a school bus?

Speaker 2: 05:08 So there's no hard limit and it's, it's hard. It's hard to set a hard limit because the bus routes are so different. And it depends on how many students are on that route. But I will say that the district told me that the buses tend to have no more than eight students on them at a time, which is, you know, if you've seen a school bus is, is a very small number and allows for that social distance

Speaker 1: 05:33 District transportation manager that you spoke with Tim Purvis says he doesn't want parents to feel like they have to drive their kids to school, to keep them safe. He wants them to start using the buses, but is driving the kids to school to keep them safe, is that what's been happening. And in Poway

Speaker 2: 05:51 Bus ridership in the district is down considerably. And he told me that you just drive by one of the elementary schools at the start of the school day. You'll just sort of see a line out into the street where parents are trying to drop off their kids and get their temperature checked and screened before they enter campus. So, yeah, I think the transportation departments sort of see school buses as a solution to, you know, mitigating traffic.

Speaker 1: 06:18 Do we know if there are any other reopen schools working to handle their school bus issues?

Speaker 2: 06:24 Yeah. So Cahone Valley union school district is another one I spoke to about this and they've completely reopened. And the, at first that this district sort of struggled with finding a, um, a disinfectant that was, that would one kill the virus, but also be safe to use with, with children and on surfaces that children's sit on. So that was a challenge to sort of find one, to find a disinfected. And that was, I guess, just toxic enough as you'd say. And, but they were able to do that Cohn Valley also kind of struggled with repurposing their school bus drivers because they have so many, but luckily they were able to find other responsibilities for bus trips.

Speaker 1: 07:08 Okay. So I also want to ask a few questions about the impact on San Diego schools. Now that the County is in the purple COVID tier schools that haven't already opened for in-person classes. I understand now won't be able to, while we're in this purple tier, is it clear how that will affect power plants to reopen middle schools and high schools?

Speaker 2: 07:32 Right. So as of now it's power unified, doesn't have a timeline to reopen their middle or high schools. They, about three weeks ago, they committed to staying virtual in those grade levels. But you know, now that we're in the purple tier, the decision is sort of made for them. They can't move forward with a more comprehensive reopening at this point. So the district is sort of just in limbo at this point,

Speaker 1: 07:57 When do these new restrictions start?

Speaker 2: 08:00 The restrictions start on Monday. So schools have actually until Monday to reopen before the, uh, the new restrictions kick in and Oceanside unified up in the North County plans to start on Monday.

Speaker 1: 08:14 All right. Here's the, I guess the big question, how was falling back into the purple tier expected to affect San Diego Unified's plans?

Speaker 2: 08:22 Yeah, so that is, that is the big question. So San Diego unified already started a what it's calling it's phase one of reopening, where they've invited a small number of high needs, elementary age students back onto campuses for in-person instruction. So districts that have already started a limited in person instruction can sort of continue on with that. And district officials did tell me that they're able to expand phase one into middle and high grades. So this means they can invite a small number of middle and high school students back to campuses or this type of one-on-one or small group instruction, even if we're in the purple phase. But what the district cannot do is invite all elementary school students back to campuses or invite all middle and high school students back to campuses at this point.

Speaker 1: 09:18 So if we do stay in the purple tier San Diego unified may continue only online learning longer than they plan to. Is that right

Speaker 2: 09:29 For most students? Yes. If the district does expand phase one into middle and high school, a assert a select few students will be able to start in person or hybrid learning, but for the vast majority of San Diego unified students, it looks like they'll be online until the County can get out of this purple tier.

Speaker 1: 09:52 Okay. I've been speaking with KPBS education reporter, Joe Hong and Joe. Thanks again.

Speaker 2: 09:58 Thank you.

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Maureen Cavanaugh and Jade Hindmon host KPBS Midday Edition, a daily radio news magazine keeping San Diego in the know on everything from politics to the arts.