25 Investigates: New school bus guidelines raise concerns

25 Investigates: New school bus guidelines raise concerns

BOSTON — 25 Investigates has been digging into the new bus rules from the state. Anchor and investigative reporter Kerry Kavanaugh spoke with parents and bus drivers who are trying to figure out how it's all going to work.

And now some school districts are making drastic decisions, limiting the number of students who are offered transportation. The new guidelines also come amid a nationwide shortage of school bus drivers.

“This is going to be terrible. This is going to be terrible,” said Pat Leblanc.

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Leblanc has been driving a school bus for 22 years in Fitchburg and Leominster.

“You know, to tell Johnny that’s 6 years old that he cannot sit with his friend,” Leblanc said.

The Local 170 Teamster said she doesn't know how a bus driver will be able to follow all the newly proposed guidelines.

"It just doesn't make sense. It's not safe for us. So, what makes it safe for the children to go back to school?" she said.

This month, the Massachusetts Department of Secondary and Elementary Education [DESE] released 15 pages of criteria to get kids safely to school this fall.

They include:

  • Masks for all staff and students on the bus, regardless of age. (There are exemptions for students due to medical and/or behavioral reasons)
  • Students seated no more than one student per bench, alternating sides in each row. (Children from the same household may sit together and in closer proximity)
  • For best ventilation, windows must remain open at all times, unless extreme weather.
  • Students will have seat assignments.

The rules have left parents with a big decision.

“We’re concerned for our safety, our children’s safety, safety of the teachers who take care of our kids,” said Ellery Klein, a Medford mom.

For Klein, she’ll opt for having her kids walk to school.

“We’re talking about how to get kids on buses. And clearly buses are not a safe environment,” Klein said. “It just feels like this is an excellent time to really double down on those efforts of getting more kids to walk to school.”

Klein is a longtime advocate for more walkable routes for kids.

Her children, ages 11 and 13, have been a part of Medford's Safe Routes to School program for seven years.

But if her kids had to get on a school bus, Klein said, it’s complicated.

“It’s going to be tricky,” she said.

“I think the bottom line really here is that this is going to be a struggle for everybody,” said David Strong with the School Transportation Association of Massachusetts.

Strong said that under the new guidelines there simply might not be enough drivers.

The DESE rules limit capacity. For example, a 77-passenger bus to can only carry 25 passengers, or 32%. A 29-passenger bus is limited to 9 passengers, or 31%. A 14-passenger bus can have six passengers, or 43%.

“The industry has been dealing with a driver shortage. And, matter of fact, the entire country has been dealing with a CDL driver shortage,” Strong said.

He says school districts' plans to have some students in school only part of the week could address this. Another option is doubling up routes, but then comes the issue of school start times and bus schedules.

Another concern, Strong said, is that most bus drivers are older retirees, people who could be considered high risk for COVID-19.

“I’m very concerned. Number one, I’m diabetic and I’m not healthy. And I don’t know how I’m going to deal with this,” Leblanc said.

That’s a sentiment that families share as well.

“They would like to get back to school,” Klein said about her kids. “But I think, like everybody, they know the risks and they know they don’t know that their safety can be completely guaranteed.”

It's now up to individual school districts to take the guidelines and come up with a plan of their own.

25 Investigates learned the Chelmsford School District will limit which students get bus transportation to students grades six and under who live two miles or more from school.

We’ve learned Fall River is considering a similar plan.

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