Hiding on school buses: uncertainty persists

As the school year picks up nationwide, questions related to masking on buses continue to arise. Should students and drivers be required to wear face covers? Can practice make a real difference in the protection of runners? How much flexibility do school leaders have in deciding how to operate with regard to masking?

As if such questions weren’t tough enough, the rapid emergence of the latest COVID-19 Delta variant has raised significant new concerns as the strain is said to affect children in ways the original did. not. And to complicate matters further, not only do school officials hear different guidelines, it can be difficult to determine which are real terms of reference and which are just strong suggestions.

For example, at the end of July, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) revised previous guidelines to again require everyone, regardless of their vaccination status, to use masks indoors. A federal ordinance requiring masks on public transport and school buses also remains in effect.

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL), at least 13 states – including California, Kansas, New York and Pennsylvania – publicly support the CDC order because it applies to bus transportation in the proceedings. COVID-19 security of their own state.

Arguing that masking should be a matter of personal choice rather than a government mandate, the governors of Arizona, Florida and Texas persist in banning local entities, including schools, from imposing mandates mask. Kyrene School District in Phoenix now recommends masks to remain in compliance with Governor Doug Ducey’s order for buildings, but still requiring them for school buses.

“The CDC is part of the US Department of Health and Human Services and, as such, an order of the CDC carries the weight of federal law. The CDC and the Arizona Department of Education recently confirmed that the order applies to school buses in Arizona, ”a district spokesperson emailed. School transport news Thursday. “Kyrene’s legal counsel has indicated that the supremacy clause of the US Constitution establishes that federal law takes precedence over state laws and that Kyrene must comply with the CDC order.”

The spokesperson added that Superintendent Laura Toenjes and the board share the frustration in the local community – and elsewhere – over conflicting guidance from local, state and federal authorities.

“At Kyrene, our goal is to provide an exceptional education for students,” added the spokesperson. “We will always follow the law and rely on official health agencies to provide guidance to ensure safe and healthy learning environments. “

In Florida, public schools in Miami-Dade County, Florida’s largest school district, still want to require masks despite Gov. Ron DeSantis’ executive order. Yet he fears losing state funding if he goes ahead.

Then there’s the Houston Independent School District, which continues to require all students and staff to wear masks during the school day and on school grounds.

States that support
CDC masking
As of August 4, 2021

Washington DC
New Jersey
new York
Rhode Island

Source: National Conference of
State legislatures

Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson signed a similar law banning masks in April, but expressed remorse on Wednesday because children under 12 who do not have a vaccine available are vulnerable to the new strain .

Elsewhere, Aurora Public Schools in Colorado and Long County School District in Georgia have made their own decisions to require masks on buses, NCSL reported.

The inconsistency on what is required or allowed is obvious. But some legal experts have said ignoring the CDC’s guidelines could engage schools’ liability. This was the precise message of transport lawyer Matthew Daus to the participants of the School transport news ” Virtual Bus Technology Summit last September. Other states are of the view that they hold the real authority and that federal mandates should be treated as guidelines rather than absolute requirements, whether they emanate from the CDC or the US Department of Education.

So where does that leave things for those responsible for transporting students safely? As for the upcoming school year, opinions on what to expect vary across the country, with the prospect of a change in the air. When you factor in information about viruses that continue to evolve into political maneuvering for activist parents on both sides of the issue, the challenges for school bus leaders can be daunting.

“It’s more than frustrating,” said Rebecka Sykes, director of transportation at Sargent School District RE-33J in Monte Vista, Colorado, where masks were mandatory for students and drivers last year but are not mandatory. for the 2021-2022 school year, at least not yet. “Everything is changing, and we are among the last to know, but we expect all changes to be tracked, regardless of knowledge or ability base,” she said.

Along with changes at the federal and state levels, Sykes noted that while the majority of the community is against children wearing masks for more than eight hours a day, some parents are furious that not everyone is wearing masks. mask. According to a CDC tracker of the country’s counties, Rio Grande County, where its district is located, currently has a high level of community transmission.

“To say it’s been tough is an understatement,” Skyes said.

In releasing its new recommendations, the CDC stressed that not all parts of the country should require masks because these are not hotbeds of the virus – at least not yet.

The local Mohawk School District in Sycamore, Ohio does not currently require face coverings for students or drivers, despite a substantial level of community transmission.

“It is the option of the drivers and students to wear a mask and the decisions will be respected by all,” said Jason Price, director of transportation for Mohawk.

This degree of choice represents a change from the previous school year, and the rules could be changed again.

“Just like last year, we respect our local health service, which is guided by the state,” he added.

Price said that while the federal government has also released guidance, he believes it is more of a local issue. “All they are [are] recommendations, not warrants, ”he said. And regardless of the masking practices, the buses will always be sanitized like last year.

The situation is similar for Laurel Public Schools in southwest Billings, MT. Zada Stamper, the director of transport, recalled that the state’s superintendent of public education, Elsie Arntzen, has advocated for personal choice, even with some public health experts pushing for warrants. Even though her stance has recently shifted towards masking, local authorities have been given some flexibility and Stamper said she is not planning a mandate anytime soon.

“If you live in a small county in Montana and have little or no cases, you should be allowed to stay open and run your business as usual,” she said. “If you’re in a more populated area with higher risks, that county’s health department may recommend masking. “

According to the CDC tracker, Yellowstone County, where Laurel is located, has a high level of community transmission.

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For Kathie Bostrom, director of transportation for Huron School District 2-2 in Huron, South Dakota, the importance of masks is clear. Even though masking requirements have been relaxed, Bostrom is poised to revert to the stricter standards from last year. Huron is located in Beadle County, which the CDC says has a substantial transmission rate.

“The school bus is a yellow tin can filled with germs on a daily basis, with no way to properly distance itself and still provide adequate transportation for thousands of students twice a day,” she said. “I believe that requiring bus drivers and every student on the bus to properly wear a mask at all times on the bus throughout the school year has enabled this district to go to school all through the school year. ‘year without missing a single day. “

In addition to the masking requirements, its staff used soft-shield seat dividers in each row of each bus and sanitized the buses twice a day. Bostrom said she realizes the same practices may be needed again soon. “We have to do whatever we have to, which could mean going back to masks to start this school year, in order to provide the necessary transportation for the students so that they have the opportunity to learn,” she said. .

Whatever the local conditions, staying on top of COVID-19 restrictions and protocols has added new levels of responsibility to transportation leaders. And it looks like the future may bring more of the same.

“It is certainly a challenge to protect not only students, but also bus drivers and bus helpers,” said Adam James, transportation director for Greenville County Schools in Taylors, South Carolina, where state law now bans mask warrants despite all but one counties showing high rates of virus transmission. “Keeping our passengers, drivers and helpers protected has been the core of our work since the start of the pandemic.”

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