Private bus companies normally carry 10 million students to U.S. schools. Many are on the brink of failure.
As schools shuttered and students stayed home this year to comply with lockdown orders, the owners of companies that bus millions of students to and from schools idled their fleets and braced for financial losses.
But as the pandemic has stretched on, many privately owned bus companies are facing an existential threat. After a summer with most summer school programs canceled and many schools planning to operate online for the fall, they fear they may not survive.
“We’ve been in business for over 60 years,” said Glenn Every, who runs a school bus company that works with schools in the Hudson Valley of New York. “But this may be the end of the line for us.”
About 60 percent of school buses are owned and operated by school districts; privately owned bus companies account for the remainder, carrying nearly 10 million children to school a year.
If they fail, experts say, many schools districts may find few alternatives. Parents and students, particularly those who live far from their school of choice, will likely be left to improvise options to get to school.
The tens of billions of dollars Congress has earmarked for the flagging transportation industry focused on airlines, public transit and Amtrak. Privately operated buses were largely left out, industry experts said. Another $13.5 billion in aid was set aside for school districts, but lawmakers left it up to district administrators whether to use any of that money to pay private contractors — and some are not.
In school districts that are adopting remote learning, bus companies worry about getting any income at all. In places that are returning fully to in-person instruction or a hybrid model, companies project that cleaning costs will rise and operational outlays will skyrocket because of the need to run more buses to ensure students remain socially distanced.
In addition, bus drivers who were laid off have flocked to industries like trucking and package delivery, making it difficult for companies that need to drive students in the fall to recruit the staff members they now need.
“Once it falls apart,” said Kyle DeVivo, a bus advocate and an assistant vice president of DATTCO Inc., a bus company in Connecticut, “good luck putting it back together.”
In France, President Emmanuel Macron warned on Friday that the authorities were doing “everything to avoid a new lockdown.” A day later, the country reported over 7,300 new virus cases: its highest daily tally since March 31 and a number that sent its seven-day average to a new record of 4,668.
As Germany faces its own more modest resurgence — its seven-day average for new cases has now risen to over 1,300 — Chancellor Angela Merkel said this week that managing the pandemic would become more challenging in the fall and winter, as the colder weather drives people back indoors. “We will have to live with this virus for a long time to come,” she said.
The sobering comments from Ms. Merkel and Mr. Macron come as European countries brace for — or even appear to be entering — a second wave of infections.
Nowhere on the continent is the threat more alarming than in Spain, where the seven-day average has passed 7,600. The country reported nearly 9,800 new cases on Saturday, its highest number for a single day to date.
The mayor of Madrid has asked residents of the city’s southern neighborhoods to stay at home, and more than 2,000 members of its armed forces may be soon deployed to track local outbreaks, the authorities announced this week.
In Berlin, thousands of people took to the streets on Saturday to demand an end to government measures that they argue violate their constitutional rights. Although the country has been lauded for mostly minimizing the pandemic’s toll health-wise, many who have found themselves out of work are angry and afraid that they would not survive a second lockdown.
While Mr. Macron has not ruled out another nationwide lockdown, the Tour de France, the prestigious cycling race, nonetheless departed from the southern city of Nice on Saturday, despite concerns that the peloton could carry infections as they ride across the country until Sept. 20.
Marilyn Cortez, a retired cafeteria worker in Houston who has no health insurance, spent much of July in the hospital with Covid-19. When she finally returned home, she received a $36,000 bill that compounded the stress of her illness.
Then someone from the hospital, Houston Methodist, called and told her not to worry — President Trump had paid it.
But then another bill arrived, for twice as much.
Ms. Cortez’s care is supposed to be covered under a program that Mr. Trump announced this spring as the pandemic was taking hold — a time when millions of people were losing their health insurance and the administration was doubling down on trying to dismantle the Affordable Care Act, the law that had expanded coverage to more than 20 million people.
“This should alleviate any concern uninsured Americans may have about seeking the coronavirus treatment,” Mr. Trump said in April about the program, which is supposed to cover testing and treatment for uninsured people with Covid-19, using money from the federal stimulus package.
The program has drawn little attention since, but a review by The New York Times of payments made through it, as well as interviews with hospital executives, patients and health policy researchers who have examined the payments, suggest that the quickly concocted plan has not lived up to its promise.
It has caused confusion at participating hospitals, which in some cases have mistakenly billed patients who should be covered by it. Few patients seem to know the program exists, so they don’t question the charges. And some hospitals and other medical providers have chosen not to participate.
Large numbers of patients have also been disqualified because Covid-19 has to be the primary diagnosis for a case to be covered (unless the patient is pregnant).
“This is not the way you deal with uninsured people during a public health emergency,” said Sara Rosenbaum, a professor of health law and policy at George Washington University.
Universities are struggling to rein in their Greek systems, as fraternities and sororities foster outbreaks.
Colleges across the country are handing down suspensions and mandated quarantines as outbreaks at fraternity and sororities jeopardize fall reopening plans.
Health officials in Riley County, Kan., announced on Friday that 22 students affiliated with four sororities at Kansas State University had tested positive, and recommended that all members of the affected houses begin a two-week quarantine.
In Idaho, Boise State University revealed in a statement on Friday that three fraternities and a handful of students had been placed on interim suspensions in connection to “large gatherings that violated university policies.”
And Indiana University said on Thursday that it was requiring all Greek houses at its Bloomington campus to suspend “in-person organizational activities” after an alarming rise in new cases. The university also directed members of eight Greek organizations to quarantine.
The New York Times has tracked more than 26,000 cases of the virus linked to students returning to colleges, and the latest outbreaks underscore the challenges universities face in trying to regulate student behavior.
While many universities have encouraged students to return to campuses, others that are relying largely on remote learning have seen students organize their own housing far off campus, forming collectives in other states and countries.
One of the U.S. Open’s most indelible moments featured one of the game’s greatest tennis players sitting on a flower box by the side of the court. On his 39th birthday, Jimmy Connors was staging a riveting comeback against Aaron Krickstein. Sneaking a quick rest before the fifth set tiebreaker, he looked into the camera and boasted, “This is what they paid for — this is what they want.”
“They” were the stomping, clapping, screaming, delirious fans whose rabid enthusiasm helped give Connors the energy and psychological edge to topple his younger opponent.
The U.S. Open is known for its passionate and raucous fans, so their absence this year will definitively change the tenor of the tournament, which begins on Monday.
“Playing in an empty stadium will be quite a change from what we’re used to, especially in New York,” said the 14th-ranked Petra Martic.
The most striking change might be in the Louis Armstrong and Arthur Ashe Stadiums, which feel cavernous and where struck balls sound different when the stands are empty.
Jamie Reynolds, ESPN’s vice president of production, said that without fans making noise between points, players might be able to hear the commentators.
“They can even listen to the analysis and change their tactics,” Reynolds said.
Yet in Ashe and Armstrong, players will hear recorded cheers from the moment they enter the stadium. And Lew Sherr, the U.S. Tennis Association’s chief revenue officer, promised that piped-in sounds of the game would be as accurate as possible.
If Serena Williams earns a break point with a winner in the first set during a second-round day session, for example, the computer system will seek a crowd reaction from a similar moment.
A recent $84 million budget cut to New York City’s sprawling parks system, forced by the dire economic challenges the city faces because of the pandemic, comes as the city’s green spaces are hosting gatherings that once took place in bars, reception halls and living rooms.
In typical times, such heavy use would be a challenge for the parks system. But this summer, with maintenance crews shrinking, skipped lawn trims and infrequent trash pickup, some parklands have been left unsightly and dirty at a time when New Yorkers say they need the city’s 1,700 green oases more than ever.
Some New Yorkers fear that the disheveled parks are a portent of something far worse than litter: a city spiraling toward decline.
“It’s kind of depressing,” said 19-year-old Elizabeth Soto, as a squirrel licked a fruit snack wrapper nearby. “We’re stuck in the house, and then we come out of the house and we have to do extra cleaning.”
what we learned this week
Trump’s vaccine promise, blood plasma, college clusters: A look back at the week’s coronavirus news.
As the Republican National Convention neared its end this week, President Trump vowed that a vaccine against the coronavirus would be produced before the end of the year “or maybe even sooner.”
The pledge is a tall order by any measure: Patients must be willing to take the vaccine, and there must be enough doses to be distributed.
The longer that vaccines are tested before being released, the likelier they are to be safe and effective. But the White House’s search for a silver bullet has prompted fears among government researchers that the president — who has spent his time in office undermining science and the expertise of the federal bureaucracy — may push the Food and Drug Administration to overlook insufficient data and give at least limited emergency approval to a vaccine.
Seven months into the pandemic, more than 30 vaccines are rapidly advancing through clinical trials. At least 88 vaccine candidates are under active preclinical investigation in laboratories across the world, with 67 of them due to begin clinical trials before the end of next year.
Other highlights in coronavirus news from the week:
A New York Times survey found more than 26,000 cases of the coronavirus at more than 750 U.S. colleges and universities over the course of the pandemic. Clusters of cases have emerged in dorms, on Greek rows and at college bars, in some cases upending plans for the fall semester. Seven universities, all of them large public schools in the South, have announced more than 500 cases each.
Reporting was contributed by Ed Augustin, Melissa Eddy, Tess Felder, Abby Goodnough, Taylor Lorenz, Zach Montague, Sarah Maslin Nir, Stuart Miller, Elian Peltier, Christopher F. Schuetze and Pranshu Verma.