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‘Keep your hands to yourself!’: Bus drivers take on a new safety mission as Michigan schools prepare to reopen

As school districts across Michigan prepare for the official start of school, those planning for in-person learning are working to ensure students are just as safe on the way to and from school as they are inside buildings.
Koby Levin

As Nakiya Cox prepares to return to her job as a school bus driver in Ypsilanti, she’s anticipating a few stressful scenarios because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The kids hug and touch one another,” she said. “It’s going to be hard to be like ‘No, keep your hands to yourself!’ That’s going to be our life moving forward.”

As school districts across Michigan prepare for the official start of school, those planning for in-person learning are working to ensure students are just as safe on the way to and from school as they are inside buildings. They intend to clean buses before and after routes, stock buses with plenty of hand sanitizer, and take other safety precautions.

Districts hope the safety measures reassure parents who rely on buses to get their kids to school. They also must reassure drivers like Cox, who not only take responsibility for their passengers’ safety with each run but also worry about their own. In Michigan, about 20% of school transportation workers are over age 65, meaning they’re at higher risk of severe illness if they’re infected with the new coronavirus.

“I’ve heard from other people that some are not going to be returning because it’s too dangerous for them,” said Cox, a member of the union that represents about 75 Ypsilanti district bus drivers and monitors.

DeBrina McNeal, whose daughter Ja’Breya attends Brenda Scott Academy in Detroit, is planning to send the seventh-grader back to in-person learning if the number of positive coronavirus cases is on a steady decline. If that happens, Ja’Breya will need to take the school bus.

That has McNeal worried about whether students will be sitting too close to each other on the bus, and whether they’ll keep their masks on for the entire ride.

“It’s scary,” she said.

McNeal, who has lupus, is worried her daughter may catch COVID-19 and bring it home. Ja’Breya said she understands the risks and the importance of staying away from the other students.

“I don’t want to get her sick and want to keep her safe,” the 13-year-old said.

Safety on school buses was a key point of contention in the federal lawsuit filed against the Detroit district in July, which sought to halt in-person summer school classes. The district’s bus drivers were required to get tested for COVID-19 to comply with a federal court order.

For the fall semester, the district is working with the three companies that provide bus transportation to ensure that drivers have been tested before returning to work, as well as calling for increased maintenance and sanitation of the buses, health training for workers, and recruitment bonuses to ensure a full workforce.

State guidelines require that students who exhibit COVID-19 symptoms during school be barred from taking school transportation home. In Detroit, that means families will have to pick their child up or find another way to get them home.

Superintendent Nikolai Vitti has said he doesn’t anticipate issues with social distancing on buses. The district is expecting most parents to choose the online option, meaning fewer students will need transportation to attend in-person classes.

“I don’t believe we’re going to be in a situation where we’ll have overcrowded buses,” Vitti said during the school board’s academic subcommittee last month. On board, each student will sit alone. Siblings can sit together.

Similar steps are being taken elsewhere.

Ypsilanti Community Schools, where Cox works, has purchased personal protection equipment, such as face coverings, and cleaning supplies for sanitizing buses.

The district is offering in-person learning to about 650 vulnerable students, who include English language learners, students facing food insecurity, and students with special needs, among others. Superintendent Alena Zachery-Ross said the district is currently surveying parents on transportation needs, and the district sought extra time to prepare for reopening.

“We intentionally moved the start date for students from Aug. 31 to Sept. 8 to allow for staff training and preparation, including transportation staff,” she said.

In the Wayne-Westland Community School District, drivers will be required to fill out a daily wellness form. Buses will be cleaned before and after every route, and hand sanitizer will be available on all school buses.

Dearborn Public Schools will require all bus drivers and sixth- through 12th-grade students to wear a face covering. Drivers will keep a daily log of which students ride the bus and a seating chart. This information will be used for contact tracing in case a student is diagnosed with COVID-19. And parents are expected to take their child’s temperature before coming to the bus stop.

Dearborn district spokesperson David Mustonen said the district is trying to calm the school community’s concerns about the health risks for students and employees on the buses.

“When we talk about how we’re going to move kids around, every effort is being made, at all levels, to ensure the safety of all of those who are involved, the driver, the student,” he said. “What we’ve been saying a lot is patience and flexibility. We are all moving through this together for the first time.”

Both Dearborn and Wayne-Westland districts will start the school year with online learning, and may offer partial in-person instruction in the coming months, depending on whether infection rates decline. Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer will decide shortly before the school start date whether in-person instruction will be allowed at all.

Back in Ypsilanti, Cox said she’s eager to get back to driving students. COVID-19, she said, “couldn’t keep me away from my children.”

But she’s still anxious because she’ll be driving around students with special needs, some of whom are medically fragile and require an aide and a nurse. She worries that will make it difficult to practice social distancing.

“We are putting our life on the line to get kids to school.”

The COVID-19 outbreak is changing our daily reality

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