The return to the classroom this fall has been a major focus not only for parents, administrators and teachers, but also for the people who get up very early to deliver kids to and from school every day. As part of Maine Public’s Deep Dive: Coronavirus project, we spoke with one driver in the Belfast district who has spent a lot of time thinking about the challenges of keeping kids healthy, safe and in school:
"I'm Gerry French. I work in RSU 71 as a bus driver.
"I know that we are all at risk, we're all risk of distributing. That's my main concern: if I get this virus, how many students are going to be rubbing against my elbow, on and off the bus?
"One thing that I feel like is not being talked about and not being discussed enough is the fact that, as you sit behind the wheel of a school bus, it is impossible to socially distance from students. Fifty or 60 students could pass to get on that bus to go to school, and they have to pass to get off, then they have to pass again to get on — by the time it's said and done, you're talking nearly 200 students have been within inches of you in one given day, which is 1,000 in a week.
"Another concern is now that we've gone green, and we can put a larger number of students on the bus, somebody has got to enforce the mask policy. I just don't understand how much more time I'm supposed to not be looking at the road and looking at these students to police that. Right now there are no plans in action, that I have heard of, to put bus monitors on a bus who can take care of that. But if somebody is not watching those students, the masks are not going to stay on.
"They are also talking about some policy changes to increase the distance for students to be able to walk or ride their bicycles to school or things of that nature, which here in the climate of Maine, I'm not exactly sure how that's going to help when we face 10 to 20 degree windchill, below zero temperatures at times.
"I worry about an outbreak, not just for our staff, for our students, obviously, and I don't feel as though support staff are included in the conversation as much as teachers are, at times. When I watch the CDC updates, live at two o'clock, I hear teachers mentioned, I don't really hear a lot about food service workers or custodial staff, bus drivers, secretaries. I don't really hear a lot about that. A person could interpret that to mean that we're not being thought of.
"We are creative people. We are innovative. We are committed to the success of the students in our community. And we will do everything possible we can to make sure that these students succeed in any which way any tools that we have to use. We're committed to doing that."
This piece was produced by Willis Ryder Arnold, with reporting from Robbie Feinberg. You can find more coverage of Maine school reopening plans with Maine Public's series Deep Dive: Coronavirus.