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The wheels come off the school bus industry

2020-08-31 16:03:38
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School buses are the nation’s largest single form of mass transportation. But during the coronavirus pandemic, the C.D.C. recommends they operate at reduced capacity to allow for social distancing.

One New Jersey district has decreased average capacity to 22 students from 54, but says it won’t need to hire many more buses because more parents are driving their kids to school. The district, like others, made several other modifications:

  • X’s mark off seats, so kids know where not to sit.

  • Open windows will keep air moving.

  • The drivers store cleaning products in the seat behind the wheel.

  • Students load the bus back to front, and get off front to back, to maintain social distancing.

  • Unless students ride with a sibling, they can’t have a seatmate.

Safety measures aside, private bus companies are in serious trouble after they were left out of federal aid that went to school districts and to other forms of mass transport. The firms carry nearly 10 million children to school a year and account for roughly 40 percent of the school bus industry.

Well before the pandemic, there were driver shortages in many districts, and now drivers say they feel “expendable” when they’re called back to work — if they’re called back at all. Many have been laid off as their districts have opted for online learning.

Glenn Every, who runs a fleet of 20 school buses in the Hudson Valley of New York, furloughed nearly all 32 of his workers, including his son, to stay afloat. His company has lost $750,000 because of the pandemic — a critical blow for his business, which averages $2 million a year in revenue.

“This may be the end of the line for us,” he told The Times.

Deeper dives:

  • Education Week takes a look at the complicated logistics of Covid-era school transportation.

  • Kendra Hurley of Bloomberg writes: “Mayor Bill de Blasio has encouraged families to simply drive to school, an uninspired suggestion that many parents say is tone deaf in New York City, where most households don’t own cars, not to mention a recipe for increased pollution and congestion that could become a logistical and environmental nightmare if widely adopted.”


The school year is starting against the backdrop of the highest number of Covid-19 deaths in Europe. But in the face of a severe economic downturn, the government hopes a return to classrooms may spur a recovery by allowing parents to return to work.

But questions loom for millions of students. The government has flip-flopped on mask mandates, and its promise to implement widespread contact tracing has fallen flat.

Although most agree that disadvantaged students learn better in person, many fear a new spike in infections. In Scotland, where schools began reopening on Aug. 11, 27 cases were linked to one school last week

“The question ‘Will schools be safe?’ is a slightly crazy question because nothing in life is safe,” one school principal told The Times. “The real question is, ‘How far have you reduced the risk?’”

Other international news:

  • Schools in Hong Kong will resume in-person classes on Sept. 23. Students have been taking classes online since early February, except for about a month at the end of the school year when infections were almost zero.

  • Students at schools run by the U.S. military in Germany have tested positive, but the schools will remain open.

  • The surge in cases in France has threatened the country’s plans to reopen schools in person. The country’s education minister acknowledged that not all students would return to classrooms just hours before school was slated to start.

  • A new analysis from the International Rescue Committee found that 86 percent of primary school children in developing countries no longer have access to education, compared with 20 percent of those in developed countries.


Late in the summer, Gov. Phil Murphy was forced to abandon plans to require schools to offer in-person teaching this fall. Districts that educate the state’s poorest children, including most of state’s biggest school systems, were the first to pull the plug on face-to-face instruction.

Now, with less than two weeks before the start of school, growing numbers of affluent districts are following suit, citing teacher shortages, ventilation issues and late-in-the-game guidance.

A vast majority of New Jersey’s districts are still moving ahead with plans for face-to-face instruction, according to the governor’s office. But even in those districts, tensions are running high, with last-minute changes and threats of teacher strikes.

“I’ve been to student funerals,” said Wendy Donat, who teaches history at Summit High School and is vice president of the district’s teachers’ union. “I would prefer not to go to any more.”

The big picture: The frenzy of last-minute decision-making underscores the extreme systemic challenges of reopening schools, especially when it comes to helping underserved students.

  • Schools in Ohio will be required to notify parents and local health departments of any coronavirus cases among students or staff.

  • “It’s been so long,” one principal in Connecticut told The Hartford Courant on Monday, the first day of school since March. “Today is the day when school starts to feel like school again.”

  • One working mother in Detroit explained why she has decided to send her children back to school.

  • The podcast “This American Life” looked into school-reopening angst across the country, with visits to South Carolina, Utah, Tennessee and Indiana.


Nearly half of the 20 metropolitan areas where new cases per capita rose the most over the past two weeks are college towns.

  • In California, Chico State transitioned to virtual-only classes for the rest of the semester, “due to the quick rise of on-campus Covid-19 cases.” Most students have to leave on-campus housing by Sept. 6.

  • In Iowa, Gov. Kim Reynolds ordered bars closed in six counties after outbreaks at Iowa State University and the University of Iowa.

  • Northwestern, in Evanston, Ill., announced on Friday that third- and fourth-year students would be allowed back on campus for the fall quarter, but most first- and second-year students would not.

  • Temple University in Philadelphia will suspend in-person classes for two weeks and shift to online learning after more than 100 students tested positive for the virus.

  • SUNY Oneonta, in central New York, closed down in-person classes within a few days of reopening, after learning of more than 100 virus cases connected with the campus. Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo deployed a SWAT team with 71 contact tracers and eight case investigators to contain the outbreak.


College students, we’d love to hear about your first few weeks back in school — at home, on campus or even in a collab house. We may feature some responses in the coming days.

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