Coronavirus means many school bus riders could be left with no seat

More than 25 million students typically use buses to get to and from school, but with social distancing needs, there will just not be enough space.

By Bianna Golodryga and Meridith Edwards, CNN

(CNN) -- As arguments rage about whether it is safe to have children back in classrooms amid coronavirus, there is another major hurdle -- how to get them there. More than 25 million students typically use buses to get to and from school, but with social distancing needs, there will just not be enough space.

Houston's interim superintendent Grenita Lathan announced that instruction will be entirely online for the first six weeks of the school year. But even when schools reopen, only a fraction of the district's 60,000 regular riders will have a seat on the bus, to meet Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines created to stop the spread of Covid-19.

"Because physical distancing drastically reduces bus capacity, only special education, homeless and priority students will be transported for in-person classroom instruction initially," Lathan said.

That shocked Lucy Forbes, a single mother whose 13-year-old daughter relies on a school bus to get her 9 miles to her Houston middle school and back home each day. "Honestly, it was 'WHAT?!' -- that was my initial reaction," she said.

Forbes works full time as a solo practitioner attorney and says her hours make it nearly impossible for her to drive her daughter to and from school.

"It takes approximately 30 minutes for me to drive my daughter to her campus, about 30 minutes to get to work and then repeat that at the end of the day. So, it adds two hours to my day."

Forbes said if the Houston Independent School District doesn't find a way to add buses or open up seats, she will have to figure something out.

"The difference is, I have a greater spectrum of options and I am worried about the families in our communities who don't," she said. "It will affect them and their ability to work and provide."

Lathan showed CNN a prototype of a reconfigured school bus in May. "We've labeled our seats, so where we would space students out as they arrive, get on the bus and as they're seated." She acknowledged that capacity would drop substantially from 76-83 students per bus and it would be a challenge to refit every city school bus.

Not enough money, not enough drivers

Last week, the CDC released updated guidelines for opening schools in the fall. The guidelines strongly push for face-to-face instruction, citing reports that children are less likely to suffer or spread Covid-19 than adults.

Updated CDC guidance for school administrators includes daily cleaning and disinfecting of buses, safe distancing between riders and face coverings.

Implementing bus guidelines comes at a time when school districts across the country are already facing severe budget constraints. For some, complying with CDC guidelines may prove unfeasible.

In Tampa, Florida, officials acknowledge social distancing may not be possible. Instead, masks will be mandatory and buses will be loaded from back to front and unloaded front to back.

In Sioux City, Iowa, the superintendent said buses won't be filled to capacity but will not be empty enough to enforce social distancing. Atlanta will limit bus ridership to 60%, Philadelphia will only let 11-15 students on board and Austin, Texas, says 12 students, sitting spaced out, will be the maximum for their buses fitted with Wi-Fi.

While large cities may have tens of thousands of bus riders, smaller and rural cities often cover greater distances. The Ionia school district in Michigan covers more than 132 square miles between Lansing and Grand Rapids.

Superintendent Ron Wilson said he has more than 1,500 students relying on bus transportation and he is running out of options to meet CDC guidelines ahead of schools opening on August 26.

"The logistics of being able to transport students with those kinds of confines means that I would need basically six buses to complete a single bus route," he said. "That certainly is problematic for us. Number one, we don't have the additional buses, and even if we did, I don't have enough drivers for the additional buses."

Wilson says three of his drivers have said they will not return because of concerns around coronavirus and how it could impact their health.

Massachusetts provides window into the new reality

In Boston, school officials have presented plans for three instruction models for the fall: in-person, at-home or hybrid instruction. Regulators at the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education have encouraged educators and administrators to wait until next month before making any final decisions about the school year.

Echoing much of the CDC's suggestions, the department's guidance for Boston and other schools regarding school buses includes the wearing of masks; one child per seat, alternating sides for each row; seat assignments; and open windows.

State officials are encouraging more parents to drive their children to school and carpool because buses will have fewer available seats. This guidance means school districts may have to increase transportation capacity by adding additional routes to existing bus schedules.

The Boston teachers union and the bus union say they haven't had the opportunity to give their input on what opening schools or transportation of students should look like.

Andre Francois, who is part of the bus union's executive team, says drivers are already in the high-risk category because of their age. "The bus is not retrofitted and not Covid-19 ready," Francois says.

Boston Public Schools tells CNN administrators have met once with the bus drivers union, but not since the new recommendations on transportation were released.

Robert Salley, a school bus driver in the Boston area for 39 years and member of the local bus drivers' union, said he feels undervalued and excluded from the reopening conversation.

"I get a lot of calls from drivers to ask me, 'What is the plan for starting September?'" he said. "I feel bad when I tell them we don't know anything because us, as a union, we should be able to tell the drivers something."

Salley said buses have not yet been refitted in a way that would make him feel comfortable to drive, such as putting up a partition around the driver.

Wilson and Forbes reflect the frustration of administrators and parents.

"It's very difficult or almost untenable to ask schools to do more than they're already doing, and while they're taking funds away from us," Wilson said. "So give us the resources we need."

Forbes looks at the bigger picture: "It's great to say that schools are open, but if we don't have a way, a reliable way, that's organized and structured, to send our kids there, it will trickle down into nothing else happening."

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