Assigned seats, open windows, lots of sanitizer: Tennessee releases guidance for school bus transportation

School bus shown in the rear-view mirror of a vehicle.
Reopening guidance for school transportation services was released Monday by the Tennessee Department of Education. (David Handschuh for Chalkbeat)

Riding on a Tennessee school bus next year may mean daily temperature checks before boarding, assigned seats to keep riders at least 6 feet apart, and a hired monitor aboard to make sure new safety protocols are being followed during the coronavirus pandemic.

Riders and drivers also may have to wear masks or other face coverings, use hand sanitizer when boarding and exiting and, weather permitting, keep the windows open to increase fresh air flow.

Those are among some of the considerations suggested by the Tennessee Department of Education in guidance released on Monday for best practices for bus transportation during the public health emergency.

The 12-page transportation document mirrors much of the advice issued last month by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 

It is Tennessee’s first guidance focusing on common-sense challenges related to social distancing for students in kindergarten through high school. And it also addresses an aspect of schooling that, for many students, represents their first and last school-related experience of each day.

The document is one of 26 “toolkits” being released by the education department during the next two weeks with detailed consideration on everything from nutrition to counseling. Last week, state officials released a general guide on possible scenarios for reopening school in August.

Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn has emphasized that all of the documents are to provide guidance — not to mandate or even to make recommendations. Those decisions will be made by local school districts.

The new guidance suggests that bus capacity may be reduced significantly and urges districts to survey their families as soon as possible about whether they will need bus transportation. Routes, schedules, and drop-off and pick-up procedures would need to be adjusted accordingly with possible staggered start times, shortened routes, and additional buses. Districts would need to clearly communicate the changes with everyone affected.

The guidance acknowledges that each of the strategies have staffing and funding considerations and may be influenced by added cleaning and disinfecting protocols. Districts across Tennessee are receiving federal coronavirus relief money to help, but it will not cover all of the needs related to the pandemic. Other federal funding is possible, while the state budget — as it stands — includes no emergency funding for schools.

The state is also urging districts to plan for driver shortages — an issue that already has plagued them for several years. On social media, some drivers have suggested that returning to their bus jobs may not be worth the hassle.

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Many drivers may have underlying health conditions that put them at high risk for contracting the virus. They also may be holding additional jobs and responsibilities that prevent them from taking on additional routes or hours. In addition, they could come in daily contact with a large number of individuals, putting them more at risk of carrying the virus.

“These factors combined create a risk of bus river shortages to occur both before and throughout the school year,” the document says.

Tennessee law authorizes local districts to provide bus transportation and receive state funding to pay for that service for students who live 1½ miles from school and any child with disabilities.

You can view the state’s ongoing reopening guidance here.

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