As school districts try to figure out whether they can reopen safely for in-person classes during a pandemic, another complication lies ahead: how to get kids to school.

Keeping kids safe on school buses involves many now-familiar safety practices: enhanced cleaning, blocked-off seats, and face masks, for example.

It’s still unclear how many students will need school buses this fall. About 1.5 million students in Pennsylvania were transported by school buses daily in recent years, according to the state Department of Transportation, but that figure will no doubt change as more districts begin the year virtually and parents consider driving children themselves.

Those unknowns create serious questions about the future of school bus drivers, a group already facing worker shortages.

“We’re really concerned about that, because we don’t believe we’ll get those drivers back,” said Mike Berk, executive director of the Pennsylvania School Bus Association. “We think they’ll move on, and that’s going to take an already depleted workforce and create real problems potentially down the road.”

‘A different challenge’

More than 80% of the 500 school districts in Pennsylvania contract out for student transportation, Berk said.

Radnor Township School District, which had planned for a degree of in-person learning, manages its own fleet of about 60 vehicles. The district has since announced that it will begin virtually through October.

Before the recent change, Radnor director of transportation John Hearn had told The Inquirer that vehicles would be disinfected after morning and afternoon runs, and drivers would wear face masks or shields. The biggest mitigation measure will be social distancing, with blocked-off seats and no more than about 30 aboard a 72-person bus. Midday runs are also planned, he said.

“Just a different challenge for us, that’s all,” Hearn said. “The world changes, we got to be able to adapt to it.”

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The district had prepared for more cars dropping off students, noting on its website that parents or guardians who can “are encouraged to do so.” It will make social distancing easier.

“It certainly does help when we have parents willing to help,” Hearn said. “That’s why we’re not increasing the fleet, that’s why we’re not increasing our resources, because the Radnor community’s been so willing to help.”

Cleaning and disinfecting, modified layouts, proper hand hygiene, and face coverings are part of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s recommendations aboard school buses. Windows will likely stay cracked to allow for ventilation, weather permitting.

“There’s a lot of good relationships that form between the students and their drivers,” said Berk, of the Pennsylvania School Bus Association. “So no more bringing food to the driver, or bringing a picture you drew — not right now.”

Many of the same practices are found on SEPTA, which transports a lot of students in Philadelphia, but some SEPTA vehicles have one mitigation measure that big yellow school buses cannot adopt — barriers separating drivers and passengers.

PennDot rejected a pitch to add plastic barriers on school buses for other safety reasons, the Associated Press reported last month.

“The school bus driver has a number of responsibilities beyond driving the vehicle,” spokesperson Diego Sandino said in a statement last week. “Key to these responsibilities is student safety. As an example, school bus drivers may need to quickly access the exit doors or aisleways to protect students and evacuate them from the school bus. Any barrier that potentially hinders immediate access is a concern to PennDot.”

SEPTA boasted quick installation of see-through barriers on buses and trolleys earlier in the pandemic to protect riders and operators. The authority was able to do so because the mass-transit vehicles are regulated “in a different … category than school buses,” said SEPTA spokesperson Andrew Busch.

About 65,000 School District of Philadelphia students take SEPTA to school, and about 40,000 take a school bus, spokesperson Monica Lewis said. Though the city district will offer only virtual classes through November, by law it must still transport city students who attend private and charter schools and are eligible for bus transportation; some of those children will be attending schools in-person so will require bus services.

John Bynum spent 23 years as a bus driver for the Philadelphia School District, where he now works full time as a bus driver instructor. Bynum said he’s heard some anxiety from his trainees about returning to work, but he’s confident that when buses are running again, precautions being put in place will be enough.

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“I don’t want to seem cavalier about it; I would run the route and pray for the best,” Bynum said. “I would wear my PPE, make sure that my children are wearing masks and using hand sanitizer.”

Dr. Heather Clauss, director of the infectious-diseases fellowship program at Temple University Hospital, stresses the importance of hand hygiene and recommends students sanitize hands upon entering and exiting the bus.

But even that’s a trickier subject than some might guess. Hand sanitizer is allowed on school buses, though hand-sanitizing stations cannot be mounted in buses, in part due to concerns about flammability, according to PennDot. New York has similar restrictions: Sanitizer can’t be taken onboard because of “its combustible composition and potential liability to the carrier or district,” according to the state’s reopening guidelines.

“The hand-sanitizer thing is a way bigger issue in terms of the benefit being that much greater,” Clauss said. “The Plexiglas, honestly, I think makes people feel better.”

Future concerns

While the logistics around the COVID-19 pandemic are new to schools, bus driver shortages are not.

Virtual starts, or a shortened number of in-person learning days, could further reduce the workforce should drivers seek alternate employment. That poses a “real concern” to the industry, Berk said.

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“If we can’t figure out a way to keep these drivers … there potentially could be a real problem when we return to normal, and we will get there,” Berk said. “That’s where we’re concerned. Where do we come up with these drivers if this happens?”

Shawn McGlinchey, vice president of Krapf Bus in Chester County, echoed the worry.

“Our concern is retaining our school bus drivers during this time of uncertainty and we are working with our various school administrations on this issue and have ongoing communication on all fronts,” he said in a statement.

Sue Kopystecki, executive director at Montgomery County-based TransNet, and its partners — Bux-Mont Transportation, Easton Coach Co., Main Line Transit Service, Tri County Transit Service, and Valley Transit Service — still aren’t sure what to tell some drivers about the fall. They provide transportation to seniors, those with disabilities, and children with special needs across the region.

TransNet has contracts with Montgomery County Intermediate Unit, as well as Spring-Ford and Upper Moreland School Districts, transporting about 380 students before the pandemic.

As schools abruptly shut down in March, TransNet and its partners furloughed more than 300 employees and counted on bringing back 90 drivers and aides by September to coincide with the start of the school year.

“With all of the schools, and even a lot of the private schools now, changing their minds and moving to not even hybrids in many cases, and moving to virtual school,” Kopystecki said, “it will have a huge impact on our services over the next month or so.”

Stephen Sague, transportation manager at Montgomery County-based Sague Bus Co., is rolling with the punches. The company serves schools in Philadelphia as well as Colonial School District, Sague said, and has about 45 employees and 38 buses. It put drivers on unemployment earlier in the pandemic.

The planning and logistics involved during the pandemic are “a minimum stress compared to being closed,” he said. Sague hopes to get back to a traditional school model early next year.

“We’ll be able to survive this hiccup,” he said.

Staff writer Kristen A. Graham contributed to this article.