Schools have always been community centers—for education of course, but increasingly for nutrition, health, early and after care, communication, and so much more. While these hubs provide critical supports for communities, they are also designed around bus routes. Most schools are inaccessible without motorized transportation due to their building’s distance from residential neighborhoods and unsafe pedestrian conditions. When considering the logistics of school reopening during COVID-19, school districts must make it a priority to plan for the safe transportation of students.
It is imperative that districts learn the scope of their transportation challenges. To do this, districts should survey families to assess their intention regarding the return of their children to school and their transportation needs. Although this guidance addresses only school-provided bus transportation, it should be noted that there may be separate, additional concerns about potential exposure to COVID-19 for districts where students rely primarily on public transportation.
The ability to put at least six feet of distance between people is one of the most effective ways to slow the spread of COVID-19. The CDC considers close contact with a COVID-19 infected person to be within six feet for a cumulative period of 15 minutes over a 24-hour period, indicating the need for contact tracing. These guidelines are meant to reflect that the disease is extremely contagious and should not be taken as absolute. For example, staying seven feet away from an infected person for 14 minutes, does not necessarily keep one safe from contagion.
Safe distancing on school buses means one masked child per seat bench at staggered intervals (see diagram). These seating arrangements would result in buses operating a route at about one-third of capacity. Schools must be innovative and flexible as it relates to scheduling in school time, taking into consideration whether a district is able to run multiple bus routes. This could mean staggered start times, or alternating attendance days for students.
It should be noted that school districts that privatize their transportation systems will face even greater logistical challenges. In these cases, districts will have to negotiate with private carriers whose priorities are not exclusively the health and safety of students and employees.