Under any in-person school plan, buses are a problem

As school districts finalize their reopening plans for the start of the school year, it’s becoming increasingly apparent that schools will need to find more buses at some point, even when they consider hybrid reopening plans.

The Department of Elementary and Secondary Education required districts to develop three reopening models: in-person schooling, a hybrid model blending in-person and remote learning, and a fully remote model. A final decision is required by Monday.

Across the state, districts of varying sizes are struggling to figure out what transportation for students will look like. Ahead of a public meeting scheduled for Thursday night, school district documents indicate Worcester may start classes remotely for a period, then switch to a hybrid model if COVID conditions allow it.

Worcester has two models for its hybrid plan, one that would allow half of students and another allowing one-third of students back into school. Even with those reduced numbers, transporting students to school would be almost impossible, said Superintendent Maureen Binienda, citing the state’s social distancing requirements.

Boston superintendent Brenda Cassellius said this week that the district cannot return to a full in-person model because of the need to have fewer students on buses. The Boston Globe reported in July that it’s unclear how the district will use its 721 buses to transport 24,000 students to 235 schools.

Acton-Boxborough Regional School District is recommending an in-person-focused hybrid model for all students. Its fleet of 84 buses will now limit the load to 26 students, or one per seat with each student three feet away from other students.

The district had previously mentioned using 32 to 33 buses at multiple times to transport over 4,000 students as part of a study of delayed school times. Number crunching shows that the buses could only transport 858 students safely in one round of busing. It would take five trips, not including the time it takes to clean each bus after students leave, to get all the students to school. It would take three trips to transport students if the schools opened at 50 percent capacity.

In Springfield, where 7,600 students typically take buses daily, a hybrid model developed by district officials proposes assigning the majority of students into two groups: one to attend class in person on Mondays and Tuesdays, and the second group to attend class Thursdays and Fridays. Last year the district put out a bid to contractors asking for 72 buses. Even with 50 percent of students taking the buses, the buses would have to make three trips to get students to school safely.

Massachusetts Education Commissioner Jeffrey Riley has been strongly urging local schools to open in person this fall, pushing back against state teachers’ unions who are calling for the school year to begin remotely.

What’s increasingly clear is that getting to yes on in-person learning will not only require progress in dealing with COVID-19 and buy-in from teachers, but solving difficult transportation issues as well.



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