While educational aspects may be the first thing you think of in regards to schools, the learning institutions are truly invested in the entire well-being of their students. From eating right to staying active, most schools try to promote a balanced lifestyle.

Case in point, local school districts are currently looking to take advantage of the Environmental Protection Agency's Diesel Emission Reduction Act (DERA) reauthorization program. This is the fourth such national rebate program (started in 2012) to be offered by the EPA, with the application period now open until Nov. 1. The program aims to help public schools replace or retrofit older buses in their fleet to reduce diesel emissions and improve air quality.

"Anytime you have a diesel bus that's belching smoke into the air and you have children around, you need to alleviate that problem," said EPA Region 7 representative David Bryan.

There are three categories of buses in the program that require different amounts of work (if retro-fitted), including those manufactured before 1994, 1994 to 2006 models and 2007 to 2010 models. Bryan noted 2011 and newer models meet current EPA standards.

For USD 460 in Hesston, this has proven to be an extremely beneficial program. Hesston has 10 buses in its fleet, according to transportation director Les Guhr. Of those 10 buses, six have been brought up to standards through the DERA reauthorization program. Guhr noted the district has used the program to purchase two replacement buses and retrofit the engines of four other buses.

Right now, Hesston has four buses, a '95, '96 and two '97 models, that need to be brought up to standards (which make new diesel engines 90 percent cleaner than older ones) and Guhr said the district will assess the feasibility of a purchase during the application window.

Being a smaller school district, USD 460 does not have the opportunity to replace a bus every year, but Guhr said it appreciated the opportunity available through the rebate program.

"Any help we can get is definitely appreciated with the cost of a new bus," Guhr said.

Through the program, Guhr said it is stated that any new buses purchased as replacements must be 2016 models, which he noted cost around $100,000. As part of the rebate, schools must pay a portion of the costs, but the EPA covers around 25 percent (a maximum of $25,000) of the price tag for a new bus and up to $6,000 for retrofitting older engines.

Newton USD 373 is looking into purchasing a new bus this year and transportation director Sheila Zwahlen noted she will be applying for the rebate through the EPA program, which could help make that decision. Currently, the district has 22 buses in its fleet that are used to transport about 600 students on a daily basis. Of those buses, only three models are older than 1998, but Zwahlen noted those are used only on an as-needed basis.

Both Guhr and Zwahlen noted there isn't much difference in how each model drives, noting all of their buses are functioning. The biggest problem for Guhr, he said, is one bus that is rusting out because of the rural roads it routinely travels on, but both see the advantages of the program helping districts meet newer standards since older engines emit pollutants that have been linked to serious health problems.

"I think it's good. I wish that we had the money to replace all our old buses for the wellness and the health issues of the children who are on buses for long periods of time. Some of them that have asthma, this aggravates it. It can be a long-term problem for kids," Zwahlen said. "All buses pretty much drive the same. It's just trying to keep the kids safe and not having to breathe all that."

For 2016, approximately $7 million will be available through the rebate program, which has helped make 25,000 buses across the country cleaner since its initiation.

"We've had a lot of success with the program in our four state region," Bryan said. "It's important that we assist the school districts because, of course, the EPA is all about protecting human health and the environment."