With so much stress over in-person, hybrid and remote learning, the thought of how to get children to school has been on the back burner for many parents.
But at Joseph Ingle Bus Service, it’s all they’ve been thinking about since March 12, when their fleet stopped rolling.
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“I’m thinking how are we going to do this,” driver Cheryl Merritt said. “I’m thinking about how about all these kids?”
Merritt has been driving buses for 32 years.
She was hesitant about getting back in the driver’s seat. But in July, the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education put out guidelines for school buses.
Masks must be worn at all times, windows have to open at all times except during extreme weather, there are assigned seats for every student, with one student on each bench alternating sides for each row.
“The 71 passenger would allow for 23 passengers,” Joseph Ingle Bus Service owner Stephen Ingle said. “That’s sitting one student per seat, however, they are allowing siblings to sit together.”
Ingle is anticipating as few as 15 students on some buses.
Hanover Public Schools’ hybrid plan has two separate cohorts for the district’s 2,600 students.
“The driver will observe them, make sure they have their mask on and to look for signs and symptoms, and then we’ll allow the first student on the bus,” Ingle said.
Before COVID-19, about 75% of Hanover’s students rode the bus, but a district survey found about 50% of parents plan on driving their kids to school this year, which creates its own challenges.
“We need to keep the parents dropping off, as well as the buses dropping off, separate. And so the principals are working together with our director of health services in terms of making sure the students enter the building safely, whether they come off the bus or they come out of their parent’s cars,” said Dr. Thomas Raab, assistant superintendent of business and finance for the Hanover School Department.
The transportation challenges vary from larger urban districts to small rural districts.
“The hybrid can’t work if the kids can’t get here,” said Dr. Martin McEvoy, superintendent of Hatfield Public Schools.
In Hatfield, which has just over 400 students for the entire district, there are only two buses per school.
With such a lean budget, McEvoy said Hatfield just can’t afford to transport the same number of students as last year.
“Frankly, we were very worried what it might look like if more people needed to take the bus,” McEvoy said. “Parents were able to help us out and bring their kids to school to get them here largely.”
But in Lowell, which is the sixth largest district in the state with more than 14,000 students and the largest offering full-time in-person learning for the fall, the city is conducting a lottery for available seats on its buses.
The district said the lottery gives priority to students with individualized education programs and 504 plan, homeless students, English learners and families who have more than one child enrolled in Lowell public schools.
“I’m in the limbo right now,” parent Abigail Higgins said.
Higgins is hoping her daughter, who will be learning in-person this year, will also get a spot on the bus, especially because her son who is entering first grade didn’t get an in-person learning spot in the district’s other lottery.
“It’s going to be hard for me, taking my son with me to drop off my daughter every morning. It’s going to be really, really intense for him, and I already imagine that he’s probably going to start crying a couple of times.”
With so many tears shed the last couple months over the closure of schools in the spring and the stress about the fall, drivers like Merritt hope parents and students will be excited to see their bus rolling up to their stop this week.
“I just want the parents to make sure that if they feel their child is feeling sick — keep them home. Don’t put them on the bus, because then it’s going to affect everybody on the bus if your child is sick,” she said.
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READ THE FULL STORY:5 on Education: Transportation challenges vary from district to district
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