WICHITA — A standard school bus can hold as many as 72 students, as long as you pack them in three to a bench. That just isn’t possible during a pandemic.
And according to Wichita Public Schools transportation director Lisa Riveros, following the 6-foot social distancing recommendation would "reduce it down to as many as 10, 11, 12 passengers."
Count busing among the numerous challenges Kansas school districts are facing as they head back to school this week. Some can’t find enough drivers. Others aren’t in the position to add more buses or routes. That has left districts looking to do everything they can to reduce the number of kids they have to transport.
Busing in an urban district
Last year, before the coronavirus changed everything, the Wichita district had more than 16,000 students ride the bus.
Riveros said it started the year with about 3,000 students, because only elementary schools are starting the year with in-person classes. The district also saw many families enroll in remote learning, which offsets the reduced bus capacity.
And because the district already used a staggered schedule (one bus does three separate routes at different times for elementary, junior high and high school), she doesn’t expect to need more buses if the older students ever go back to in-person classes.
"Our hope is to do it with what we have," she said.
While the district will spread students out as much as possible on a bus, Riveros said there are other ways to keep people safe. Siblings will sit together, buses will be loaded back to front, and masks are required.
It has also purchased a new disinfectant called Zoono 71 to spray inside the buses. It is supposed to create a microscopic barrier that adheres to surfaces and physically ruptures virus cells, like the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19. Once sprayed, the surface coating lasts for a couple of weeks.
While the new disinfectant might make people feel safer, it’s probably not that important. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the coronavirus is mainly spread through close person-to-person contact or respiratory droplets, not from surfaces.
Busing in a rural area
Just northwest of Wichita, the small school district of Maize has a difficult time finding interested and qualified drivers in a normal year. Add in a couple of retirements and general challenges from COVID-19, and superintendent Chad Higgins said it’s even more difficult.
"More buses and more bus routes really isn’t an option because it’s the drivers," he said. "It doesn’t matter how many buses you have if you don’t have anyone to drive them."
Maize’s problem is threefold: It can’t add buses or routes, each bus carries fewer students and routes need to be as short as possible.
Ultimately, Higgins said, he decided to reduce the number of students who ride buses by limiting eligibility to those who live more than 2.5 miles away. He also asked parents in that group to drive their students to school if possible. Most parents, he said, have been understanding.
Limiting eligibility wasn’t even the district’s first choice, though. It considered having one school bus do multiple routes to the elementary schools, before moving on to kids in the older grades. But that would have had some students at the school building well before class started, and the district doesn’t have the staff to watch that many kids so early.
"One solution will cause another problem," Higgins said. "And that’s really been the whole story of this opening schools saga."
Brian Grimmett reports on the environment, energy and natural resources for KMUW in Wichita and the Kansas News Service.