Nancy Edmonds Hanson
It was simple, looking back. “We used to spend all summer developing one set of routes,” reminisces Mike Steffen, the Moorhead school district’s director of transportation and safety.
This year has been different. With three evolving Restart to Learn plans under construction over the summer, the year-long routes that previously served the district have turned into a complex combination of A-B schedules, half-filled seats, sibling pick-ups and sanitation routines.
Work still begins at 6:30 a.m., but Moorhead drivers will be picking up students heading home an hour earlier every afternoon. In the meantime, their familiar midday assignments – driving classes on field trips, taking teams to games – are on hold. Instead, they’ll be delivering meals for families to pick up at dozens of spots around the city.
“We’re a little more anxious,” the director observed a few days before this week’s start. “We just want to get everyone to school and get them started right. Having the kids back in school is a good thing. Normalcy is good.”
It’s not quite “normalcy,” of course. For one thing, the 2020-2021 term will be remembered for having not one, but two “first days of school,” as all of the district’s seven schools begin the term on the hybrid A-B schedule. Half of students began on Tuesday; the rest start Thursday. The groups alternate from that point on – attending in person three days one week and two the next, with distance learning in between.
“Scheduling the buses is more complex,” Steffen concedes. “We’re training both our drivers and our families. Students are used to what they remember from last year, and now there is no ‘last year.’” Full schedules have been provided to families via the PowerSchool online website and app.
“We’ve tried to keep from changing the routes as much as possible,” he adds. “We’re trying to keep the buses as close to the same track that kids remember, while picking up only half as many students every day.
“For this first week, we will stop at every stop to make sure no kids are missed. We don’t want to see them left standing there on the wrong day.”
All of the district’s drivers complete three trips each morning and afternoon. The first collects elementary students, who arrive before the bell rings at 7:55 a.m. The second brings teens to Moorhead High by 8:25. The third route of the day gathers middle-school students for Horizon East and West by 9 a.m.
The district’s daily fleet includes about 70 school buses, along with 15 or so smaller vehicles employed for specialized runs. The system operates 20 buses of its own, now housed inside the District Operations Center on 30th Avenue South. Three companies pick up students under contract with the schools – Richards Transportation, the largest; Red River Trails, with six buses; and Schuck Bus Service, with eight. All told, they cover a 35-mile area stretching from Georgetown to well south of the city.
Steffen says the entire crew of drivers are back behind the wheel this fall, looking forward to whatever the “new normal” brings. That comes as a relief after the end of the spring semester, when schools shut down and went entirely to distance learning. With no children to carry to their classrooms, drivers took on other unexpected duties. “Within two days, working with the school food services, we had a feeding program up and running,” he says. Twenty vehicles brought meals to 70 sites every day from March through early June; some continued to service just seven central sites from the end of the term through last week.
The buses also delivered Chromebook computers and homework to families with children involved in distance learning.
“With the A-B schedule this fall, trying to get food to kids on the right days and in the right places is our next challenge. We’re working to find the best way,” he notes, adding, “This time, it’s much easier.” All district drivers participate in the distribution, as well as special education contractors, whose wheelchair lift-equipped vehicles are helpful for transferring heavy containers.
Picking up the right riders on the right days along the right routes is only part of drivers’ duties this fall. The state departments of health and education have set out rules for keeping children healthy and COVID-free on the buses. That includes the mandate for limiting capacity to about half the number each bus can carry – roughly 26 young people, leaving some margin for siblings who will now ride together. “We have more sibling-based families in the district than non-sibling,” he points out.
Sanitizing the buses has required special attention because, as Steffen notes, their interiors are much more confined spaces than the classrooms where children will spend most of their days. That introduces a certain level of risk, but he reports, “Not one driver has quit because of the personal risk.” (That’s a relief. The district and its contractors are perennially on the hunt to hire more, and the supply is tight.)
Masks are required for all riders. They come aboard from back to front to minimize contact and will ride with windows open as long as the weather permits.
High-touch areas will be wiped down between every route. The buses will be fully sanitized from top to bottom between their morning and afternoon routes, using special equipment to apply a 6% food-grade sanitizing solution recommended by the Centers for Disease Control. “We’ll fog the bus with a positively-charge hydrogen peroxide solution that attaches to surfaces,” Steffen explains.
Between precautions and varying routes, driving those buses is more complicated this year than ever before. “If we can get through this over coming weeks, everybody’s comfort level will increase,” he predicts. “We’re all learning as we go. There’s no one right way or wrong way to do this. We’re working together to find the best and safest practices.”
But one safety practice remains exactly the same to combat the greatest danger of all: Drivers who speed past buses that are dropping off or picking up youngsters. Motorists must stop at least 20 feet from a school bus that is displaying red flashing lights or has its stop arm is extended when approaching from the rear and from the opposite direction. In recent years, that law has gained even more teeth and a big boost in enforcement, with maximum fines for violations boosted to $500.
“We have cameras on the stop arms of every single bus,” Steffen says. “They record everything. We immediately report every vehicle that fails to stop.”