Constructing plan for Delaware school bus cleaning a ‘massive undertaking’

Handrails, the tops of seats and every seat a student sat in — those are just a few key areas on school buses drivers will be responsible for cleaning after each run, should students return to school buildings this fall.

“It’s a massive undertaking,” said Renate Wiley, school board president for Milford, as transportation specialist Jon LoBiondo laid out plans.

“It’s obviously been a very interesting problem to solve, with regard to utilizing school buses to try to get kids into school,” he told the board Monday night. “I appreciate the opportunity actually to have summer school so we can work out some of those things on a much smaller scale.”

Whether schools will reopen their doors this fall remains unknown until an announcement in August, but districts and charters have begun the work of determining how the state’s Returning for School guidance will work for them.

The guidance, released last week, addresses three scenarios schools could find themselves in: fully in-person, a hybrid format with in-person and remote learning or entirely remote. Much like how remote learning played out at the end of last year, how the districts adhere to the guidance may run the gamut this fall.

Transportation is one piece of that puzzle.

Of the district’s 3,600 students, 80% of Lake Forest’s student population rides the bus. The district, like many others, released surveys about different facets of school to “get a feel for the community’s needs,” said Steven Lucas, superintendent for the district.

“One was sent out to families and it just sort of asked a lot of questions, everything from where they felt like their readiness was with technology, their comfort levels about returning to school, their transportation needs, their health and support needs,” he said. “We really want to try to gauge where everyone is right now. Our goal is to really try to create a model for the fall that serves the needs of every student in the community.”

The district’s survey regarding transportation sought to find out how many students planned to ride the bus, and their transportation address to begin the work of assigning students to buses.

“Depending on the model, like the hybrid model, we feel like right now we have enough resources to make it work,” Dr. Lucas said. “But really, things are changing every day, in terms of how many kids we can put on a bus, what the requirements are in terms of space and ventilation and sanitizing [between runs], but right now we feel like in a hybrid model, we should be able to handle our transportation needs.”

Mr. LoBiondo of Milford said the biggest issue they’re facing is the guidance of either three feet of distance or six feet (some are now saying three feet, with face masks, is sufficient to). A schematic of a seating chart the district put together shows three-feet distance, with one child in every seat, staggered by placement.

“The difficulty is, depending on the building, we have an average of anywhere from 29 kids per bus up to 48 kids per bus, as an average,” he said. “Every school, pretty much except for Banneker [Elementary School], has five or six buses that are in the 50s and 60s range, so that presents a unique challenge to try to get those numbers down far enough to get an even split.”

Money concerns

There’s also the fiscal impact.

Mr. LoBiondo said that, in the state’s guidance, there’s no true difference between fully in-person or hybrid when it comes to transportation.

“That makes for a very challenging go from the transportation perspective because we would have to double the amount of routes, if we were to open up fully, based on the current guidelines, which would double the cost of transportation,” he said. “So that’s something we’re working through now.”

He added that aspects like ventilation, PPE, ridership were discussions between transportation supervisors at the state level.

There was one case of a summer school student arriving at the bus without a mask, which was addressed, he said. In addition to having PPE in place for drivers, they also have extra masks on board to handle situations like that.

“The amount of [personal protective equipment] that we have to have — I mean, everything just continues to add up,” Dr. Lucas said.

Keeping clean

In Milford, bus drivers, bus aides and the contractor will assist with cleaning. In the guidance, buses are to be cleaned after every run. Drivers will be armed with a spray bottle solution.

At the Academy of Dover, the charter school plans to partner with the bus contractor to help clean the buses. As part of their new cleaning regiment for the school, they purchased a fogging machine — and a portable version — to quickly sanitize large areas.

“That’s definitely a concern, how we’re going to keep the buses sanitary and safe as well,” said Dr. Michele Marinucci, head of school. “We actually offered that we would use that machine on the buses. They’ll just bring the buses a little early, before dismissal, and we’ll take the machine on, we’ll spray the buses down so we can alleviate everyone’s concerns — the bus driver as well our students.”

In a meeting with the bus contractor this week, they discussed the guidelines from the state and how they would work together to meet it. The charter is also planning to have support staff on the bus in the event children return to school buildings.

“Having a bus driver have to be responsible for making sure that the students keep that safe distance, as well as drive the bus and make sure kids keep their masks on, and everything like that, that’s just not a fair ask for the bus drivers,” she said.

That was also a consideration in Lake Forest.

“If we put people on the buses, then that takes up a seat on the bus, but if that’s something that we have to put in place, then we’ll make it work,” Dr. Lucas said. “If we have to reassign people who are in different roles, whether they work at the central office [or elsewhere], that’s what we’ll have to do.”

As they gear up for whatever comes this school year, Mr. LoBiondo said Milford had a four-hour training with all the drivers.

“I took quite a bit of time explaining how difficult things would get if we’re not paying attention to those little details, making sure that we’re taking the time to clean the bus,” he said. “The cleaning solution that we have allows for them to do that quickly and easily so that also helps with the follow-through of the drivers doing that.”