Bus drivers share concerns with schools’ plans

By LEANN BURKE
lburke@dcherald.com

When Dubois County’s schools announced their reopening plans for the 2020-21 school year, busing quickly became a big concern for many.

According to the reopening framework, which the four county school corporations — Greater Jasper, Northeast Dubois, Southeast Dubois and Southwest Dubois — worked together to develop, bus drivers will assign students seats near their siblings and other students at their bus stop, and buses will be cleaned and sanitized after each route. The buses will also be aired out when not in use. Drivers will be issued personal protection equipment such as masks, face shields and gloves, but the students won’t be required to wear facial coverings, though they are strongly recommended.

“It’s going to be very interesting,” said Joanie Wening, who drives a bus for and contracts a total of seven routes with Greater Jasper.

Wening’s biggest concern is keeping herself, her drivers and her students safe. She’s not convinced the assigned seating and additional cleaning will be enough to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 on a crowded bus, though she also understands the challenge of social distancing on school buses. Her bus holds 84 passengers. If students sat with the recommended 6 feet between them, the bus would hold 14.

“You just couldn’t run them like that,” Wening said.

She said she’s less concerned about the warmer months when all the windows can be open during the route. The winter, however, will be a different story.

“It’s just so airtight in there when the windows are closed,” she said.

Karmin Goeppner is also a contracted bus driver with Greater Jasper, and she shares Wening’s concerns about social distancing. She agrees that separating students by family and bus stop is a good idea, but even that will be a challenge for her. She drives a rural route, so many of her stops serve only one student. As she ran through the route in her head to plan how to assign seats, she ran out of space about halfway through her route.

She also wonders why students won’t be required to wear face coverings while on the bus, especially since the buses are such an enclosed space.

Goeppner and Wening also have concerns for their own safety since they both are in at-risk groups. Goeppner has diabetes, and Wening, like many of her colleagues, is in her 60s.

“It jeopardizes a lot of us,” Wening said. “Most of us are in our 50s and 60s. There aren’t many young [bus drivers].”

Even with their concerns, both agreed that as long as school is in session, they will drive their routes. Not running the buses isn’t an option.

For Chris Englert, who drives for Southeast Dubois, the biggest concern is sanitizing her bus after each route. She knows every seat will have to be scrubbed because students touch them all as they walk down the aisle. Every handle and window will have to be cleaned as well, as there aren’t many surfaces kids don’t touch during the ride to and from school.

“That’s not exactly an easy task,” she said. “That’s a lot of material.”

Englert, Goeppner and Wening all estimated about an hour of cleaning time after each route. That can be a challenge for drivers like Englert who need to make it to another job after their routes. The morning will be no problem, Englert said, since her shift at the Schnitzelbank doesn’t start until 10:30 a.m., but the afternoon route will pose more of a challenge.

She also questions whether kids will stay in their assigned seats, especially the older ones who have never had assigned seats on the bus.

“I think it’ll be a little tricky,” she said.

While the framework sets out guidelines all four schools corporations will follow, each corporation will develop its own plans for how to execute the guidelines. Transportation directors are already working on the plans for busing, and how to sanitize the buses has been a major detail.

Greater Jasper Transportation Director Glenn Buechlein said his corporation plans to clean the buses with a mist that kills germs within 3 minutes and lasts 24 hours Each bus driver will be trained to properly apply the mist. Southwest Dubois Transportation Director Kelly Murphy said his corporation will also use a mist cleaning agent. The agent will be applied by one person who has been trained to use the hand-held fogger.

The transportation directors know that social distancing will be a challenge on the bus, but what that will look like won’t be clear until it’s known how many students plan to ride the bus. Murphy expects there to be significantly fewer students riding the bus in 2020-21 than in previous years, based off data from a parent survey. Out of everyone who responded, Murphy said 42% said they will drive their children to and from school.

As the first day of school nears, each corporation will form more specific plans for busing, and hold a meeting with its bus drivers. The meetings happen annually and provide drivers with their final rosters and any details they need to know for the first day of school. This year, the COVID-19 safety precautions will be a major topic. Wening expects many of her concerns will be addressed at the meeting, but she doesn’t expect any perfect solutions.

“We’ll do our best,” she said. “It’s all we can do.”

Concerns aside, Englert, Goeppner and Wening agreed that they were glad to hear that students will return to school, and they look forward to seeing the students again.

“I miss my kids,” Goeppner said. “I want to see them be able to go back to school.”




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