WRAL Investigates

Back-to-school: With social distancing, bus capacity could be 11 students

Posted July 6, 2020 5:15 p.m. EDT
Updated July 6, 2020 6:15 p.m. EDT

WRAL Investigates: School bus safety during the COVID-19 pandemic

— If schools follow social distancing standards of 6 feet, school bus capacity could be cut as low as 11 students per trip. This could have a heavy impact on how students get to and from school.

Wake County schools plan to rotate in-school instruction with online classes to keep everyone safe and avoid a transportation nightmare.

How social distancing impacts bus schedules

Putting together bus routes is a puzzle even in a normal year, according to Bob Snidemiller, the director of transportation for Wake County schools.

This year, with social distancing considerations in the mix, standard buses can't carry nearly as many students at one time.

A typical school bus can hold 72 students.

Offering safe transportation that allows room for students to maintain six feet of social distance means only 11 students can ride a bus at a time.

If the social distance is reduced to 4 feet, each bus could handle 22 students per route.

Snidemiller said this could mean buses will need to make more than one trip, possibly two or three.

It could also mean staggered departure and arrival times for students.

Wake County also has to consider the safety of their drivers: They currently have 60 drivers in the high-risk category because of their age.

Ideas and strategies for easing the transportation burden

Some ideas have been put forth to help maintain student and driver safety, while also allowing the maximum possible number of students to ride.

  • Siblings could share seats
  • Schools could expand carpool, encouraging parents to drive
  • Creation of mega-neighborhood bus stops to reduce number of stops the bus must make

The strain of logistics and budget

The state has agreed to keep transportation funding level for local systems, even if ridership is down. However, fuel prices and driver overtime will significantly increase if each bus needs to cover the same route two or three times to get all of the students.

"I would think most, if not all of our bus drivers on a daily basis would go into an overtime situation, so salary costs, benefit costs would definitely go up," said Snidemiller.

Another extra cost: Bus cleaning.

Schools are weighing budget and safety questions like: How often will buses need to be wiped down? And will that require new contract workers to sanitize buses after each run?

"Our plan right now would be to clean all the high-touch areas in between loading students for each run," said Snidemiller.

When will schools and parents know more?

Gov. Roy Cooper is expected to make an announcement about school in the next week or so. Right now, schools are scheduled to open by mid-August.

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