October 20, 2020

School bus safety week showcases role of bus drivers

Author: Liza Frenette
Source:  NYSUT Communications
school bus safety
Caption: Photo by Becky Miller.

With the pandemic continuing — and in some locations, spiking in this second month of school — the bus driver’s responsibilities have increased tremendously.

School bus drivers have always been tasked with the vital job of getting students safely to and from school in risky weather, traffic snarls, through road construction and alongside errant drivers.

Now, drivers are also charged with making sure students sit in assigned seats on buses, keep their masks on, and respect the new rules of the big yellow rig to keep the virus from spreading. They’re also responsible for sanitizing buses between runs.

“Social distancing rules definitely apply on buses and so does the mask rule,” said Veronica Foley, NYSUT health and safety specialist. “I’ve recommended that buses slightly open all windows to increase outdoor air levels.”

Bus drivers and bus monitors are heroes being honored during National School Bus Safety Week, Oct. 19-23, which focuses on reminding drivers to STOP for stopped school buses, with their stop-arm out and red lights on. The New York Association of Pupil Transportation reminds drivers “Our future is riding with us.”

Charlie Jones has been driving the school bus as a member of Bethlehem Central United Employees for 19 years. His Capital Region district this year has given permission for buses to be filled to 50 percent capacity, or up to 33 children. None are at this capacity, he said, because so many parents are driving their children to school, which, in turn, has created daily traffic jams at the start and end of the school day.

The students who ride are supposed to sit according to a mandated seating chart.

“We have to sanitize our buses twice a day,” he said. In the morning after his drop-off runs, his sanitizing procedure includes railings, tops of seats, side of seats, windows that have been touched, and emergency exit handles. In the afternoon, he said he sanitizes seats, seat belts, backs, tops and bottom of seats. The sanitizing takes place in the bus garage, because chemicals are not allowed on the bus, he said.

In Brushton-Moira, the year began two bus drivers short.

“We’re all pretty stressed,” said Cheryl Rockhill, president of the Brushton-Moira Support Staff. “Everybody’s doing triple duty… One driver puts in 210-230 miles a day…It’s crazy.”

Monitors ride the bus and take temperatures of each student, she said.

Pre-COVID, Rockhill worked a split shift as a bus monitor and a dispatcher in the transportation office. Now she works full days as a transportation assistant.

“Every day is a lot of work to make a plan that works,” she said. In this North Country district, with about 900 students, there is assigned seating with one child allowed per seat – unless they are family- and the student must sit near the window. No more than 22 students are allowed on each bus, so shuffling needs to be done by the drivers to accommodate changing needs of students requiring transportation.

“I may have to call another bus to see if they have room,” Rockhill said.

Mid-day runs include driving students from their home to BOCES and vocational HVAC programs.

The buses are also sanitized between runs, she said, using an electrostatic sprayer. Drivers pull into the bus garage and spray down the bus, she said, and then let it dry. “SRPs rock and we make it work,” she said.

Bus drivers complete mandatory refreshers during the year on a range of topics from bus safety to handling student behavior, and also take first aid, CPR and emergency response training every two years, Rockhill said.

A vital part of school bus safety is the ongoing campaign to get motorists to stop for a school bus when its red lights are flashing. NYSUT was instrumental in getting legislation passed last year allowing stop-arm cameras on school buses.

To help deter negligent drivers who careen past stopped school buses, Rockhill said her district has cameras on the outside of six of the 15 buses, though not on the stop arm. She said it is challenging to keep them free of snow and salt on winter roads, but the cameras have helped catch some violators.

“When somebody runs your reds, you’re so focused on keeping the child safe, you can’t always get the info yourself,” she said.