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U.S. Department of Education Issues Transportation Considerations for School Opening

On the same day the CDC released its new school opening guidelines, the US Department of Education disseminated an updated version of their Strategies for Safely Reopening Elementary and Secondary Schools, which contains more in-depth transportation considerations.
According to the Department's press release, “Consistent implementation of mitigation strategies during all school-related activities is critical for reopening schools – and keeping them open. To that end, ED is releasing the COVID-19 Handbook, which provides strategies to do this and also identifies ways to promote equity for communities of color and people with disabilities/chronic conditions who have borne a disproportionate burden of illness and serious outcomes from COVID-19.”

The handbook is being released in two volumes. The first volume supplements the CDC's operational strategy for K-12 schools, referenced above. ED's handbook provides practical examples and roadmaps to provide educators and staff with the tools they need to implement CDC's recommended safe practices for in-person learning. Highlights include Physical Distancing Practices that detail a variety of practical ways that educators and schools can practice physical distancing to mitigate the spread of COVID-19, including:
  • Grouping students into a pod that stays together all day with their core teacher (and any aide or student teacher who is present), including for lunch and recess.
  • Using cafeterias and auditoriums for classes.
  • Staggering the use of communal spaces and reconfiguring bell schedules to minimize foot traffic.
Most notably from our perspective, the handbook contains a section entitled “Transportation Considerations”, which begins by saying “Physically distancing students can be a particular challenge on school buses and other vehicles that transport groups of students to school” and then says “However, there are several options to consider to promote safety and increase the distance among students and between students and the driver on school buses”, including many of the things we have been discussing since the pandemic began, like:
  • Opening windows, weather permitting, to increase circulation of outdoor air, as long as doing so does not pose a safety or health risk (e.g., risk of falling).
  • Maintaining mandatory consistent, correct use of masks by adults and children while on a school bus and at arrival/departure points (e.g., bus stops), except for individuals who cannot safely wear a mask. Bus drivers should be provided with extra masks to make available in case a student does not have one.
  • Seating one student per row, alternating window and aisle seating, skipping rows when possible.
  • Seating members of the same household next to each other.
  • Providing a partial plexiglass partition between driver and passenger sections.
  • Assigning each bus rider to a designated seat that is the same every day, to promote clear expectations and assist contact tracing, when needed.
  • Using seat assignments that load the bus from the rear forward (and unload from the front backward) to help reduce student contact.
  • Installing signage with visual cues on the school bus to encourage physical distancing protocols and to communicate this information to students with vision or reading disabilities.
  • Developing a communication plan to encourage students and parents to maintain physical distance at bus stops and avoid congregating in groups while waiting for the bus.
Two of the Education Department's recommendations stand out:
  • First, they encourage families to drive or walk their children to school, if possible, to reduce the number of students on buses, saying “Families could be reimbursed for reasonable and necessary costs associated with ensuring that their children are maintaining safe physical distancing in travelling to and from school. In certain circumstances, for example, it may be appropriate to reimburse families for mileage expenses related to transporting children if there is insufficient space on school buses to maintain physical distancing, provided schools maintain appropriate documentation and conform with any statutory and regulatory requirements related to the Federal, State, or local funding source.”
     
  • Second, the handbook notes “if a school system provides transportation for students with disabilities as part of their IEP or 504 plan, including medically fragile children, considering the reservation of specific seats that would not be used for other students during the day and would be subject to special precautions for cleaning. Alternatively, the student's IEP or 504 team could discuss arranging for separate transportation for those students who require this type of transportation in order to receive FAPE.

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