COLUMBIA, S.C. (WIS) - School districts across South Carolina are trying to figure out how to safely and efficiently transport kids to school this fall. Under current DHEC guidance, school buses should not exceed 50 percent capacity, so districts are encouraging parents to drive their kids to school, but they know this is not a feasible option for many families.
Districts’ main goal is to limit the time children spend riding on a bus while maximizing classroom instruction. “We already double route all our buses, so we’re going to have to look at triple and quadruple routing, which is going to put kids a long time away from home unless we make some adjustments,” said Chesterfield County Superintendent Harrison Goodwin.
Right now, Goodwin says his buses start running at 5 a.m. and don’t wrap up until after 5 p.m., but he wants parents to know, the district is doing all it can to not extend those times. “Our pledge to them is we’re going to find a way to not pick their kids up any earlier in the morning than we had to in the past and to get the last children home no later than we had in the past,” Goodwin explained.
With longer routes and limited bus drivers, Chesterfield County and Kershaw County are asking the South Carolina Department of Education for a waiver to essentially condense the school day. “Our school day is just not going to be as concrete as it used to be. So, we too are probably going to ask for a waiver to relax the seat time requirements because we’ll have multiple start times and multiple end times for our students,” explained Kershaw County Superintendent Shane Robbins.
Superintendent Robbins also plans to use money from the CARES Act to hire additional staff, including aids for each bus. These aids will take students’ temperatures and help ensure they follow social distancing rules. “We’re going to make the bus as safe as possible. We’ll have an extra person on there. The bus will be sanitized every day. It will probably be sanitized twice a day, once in the morning, and once at the end of the route with electrostatic sanitizing equipment,” said Robbins.
Chesterfield County is worried the extra demand on bus drivers will likely lead to staff shortages in other areas. “Most of my bus drivers do something else in my school buildings, so that’s really going to put a hold on their other job roles,” Goodwin said. The district will also have to absorb overtime pay to drivers.”We don’t see anywhere in funding where we’re going to get additional funding for bus drivers, so the base that we normally get is what we’re going to get,” he noted.
Kershaw County and Chesterfield County say they will know more about the exact bus routes and schedules once they find out exactly how many parents plan to send their kids to school by bus. They say they will be asking parents for that information soon.
Richland One Superintendent Craig Witherspoon says given the guidance they’ve received from AccelerateEd and DHEC, student transportation will be a challenge. “In Richland One, we would have to double the bus routes at the elementary, middle, and high school levels, adding 45 minutes or more at each level. This would severely impact the school’s start and stop times tremendously. Our transportation staff is still evaluating this impact across our footprint with regards to time, additional gas, as well as personnel considerations. That said, this information will have to factor into any decisions that are made regarding the reopening of schools in the fall,” Witherspoon explained.
To put the extra time these routes will take into perspective, Richland Two says it did a trial run of buses with the new guidelines, and a route that should have taken 45 minutes took more than two hours.