As school districts wrestle with the question of how best to protect students and teachers from COVID-19, let’s take a moment to thank a group of all-too-often forgotten folks who play one of the most essential roles in making school days possible: bus drivers.
They’ve been on my mind lately, amid stories of students and teachers contracting COVID-19 in the first days back at school. After all, one of the sites in which kids are more likely to spread germs is on the bus.
Nearly 700,000 school bus drivers transport more than 25 million children to and from school and other related activities daily. It’s no surprise that in normal times they deal with all sorts of health problems, from insomnia and muscle pains to respiratory and cardiovascular diseases as a result of inhaling exhaust fumes. Bus drivers are also “prone to fall ill due to virus and bacterial infections,” trackschoolbus.com reports.
As a transportation director for one school district noted during a flu season, “The drivers are exposed to 100 kids, 125 kids every day, and of course, the flu gets passed around fairly easily.”
These risks are all the more dangerous with COVID-19. City bus systems have already been reckoning with this. The heartbreaking case of a public bus driver in Detroit served as a powerful warning sign early on in the pandemic. Days after expressing his anger about passengers getting on the bus and coughing, Jason Hargrove died from the virus. Since then, as the Washington Post reported, transit workers have been paying a heavy price.
The head of a union that represents transit and school bus drivers told Houston TV station KTRK that school buses could be more dangerous than city buses, partly because there are no backdoor boarding policies for them.
Around the world, some governments are implementing new school transportation plans that can help. The Learning Policy Institute notes that school buses “are allowed in China, Denmark, and Norway, but schools are encouraged to use buses at half capacity (e.g., only one student in a row designed for two), and in Norway, students are encouraged to take their own transportation to school when possible.” Jiangxi, China, has redrawn some bus routes, and Taiwan is requiring cleaning and disinfection of seats, armrests, and grab handles at least once every eight hours.
Here in the United States, some bus drivers are calling for similar steps, including the possible installation of shields to separate them from kids. And the CDC offers guidance for buses, for example suggesting that drivers might separate kids and have spare clean masks ready.
But it’s also up to parents to teach our children the right lessons. That includes making sure our kids know to keep their masks on throughout each bus ride.
One reason, of course, is to help protect themselves and each other. (While kids are less likely to get COVID-19, they can indeed get it, as well as a coronavirus-linked syndrome.) But kids are also perfectly capable of understanding that they can carry a virus that gets adults sick.
To many American parents, teaching kids this at a young age is a new concept. They’ve never been through anything like it. But I know this from experience. My two children were young when we lived in Hong Kong during the SARS outbreak. There, kids were very aware that if they felt sick, they should put on a mask to help protect those around them. It became a reflex.
My wife and I discussed this idea with our kids, and also watched as they learned it from their friends and schoolmates. Rather than making them feel scared, it made them feel good. Kids are used to adults having all the control. It was empowering for them to see that this is something within their own power to help. For young ones especially, it’s also a plus that masks can be fun and colorful. This experience is what inspired me to help create SchoolMaskPack with Crayola.
While most kids will surely want to be good about wearing their masks at school, there will also be kids who don’t. And there may be some peer pressure not to. In classrooms and at lunch, there will be adults supervising, helping make sure they do. But on a school bus, most of a driver’s attention has to be on the road. So, it’s important for us as parents to be especially vigilant about it.
Those first few weeks of the school year, as habits form, let’s watch to make sure all the kids we can see keep their masks on as they board in the morning, and are wearing them when they step off in the afternoon. Let’s praise them for doing the right thing.
What about those who don’t? Perhaps email their parents a link to this article.