Cullman County students and residents may all be tired of wearing masks during the COVID-19 pandemic, but a masked school bus parked next to the Cullman County Courthouse may serve as a helpful reminder that everyone is in this together.
Cullman County Schools Transportation Director Jeff Harper said the bus, which he has named Sammy the Safe Bus, is meant to hopefully lighten the mood around wearing a mask and show students and adults that everyone should be taking the protective measure of wearing one.
“We’re all tired of the masks, and students are tired of the masks, and we just thought it might be something that kids can see when they’re driving down the road and say ‘My bus driver’s wearing a mask and I’m wearing a mask’ and maybe just lift their spirits a little bit,” he said.
The state is requiring any student from second grade and higher to wear a mask while in the classroom, but the school system is requiring all students — even kindergartners and first-graders — to wear a mask while they are riding the bus, he said.
Before the year started, the transportation department’s personnel were concerned about the difficulties around asking five- or six-year-olds to wear a mask while on the bus, but there have not been any problems so far, Harper said.
“Their parents have done such a good job getting them ready for this that we’ve just had very, very few issues with that,” he said.
Drivers have also have some additional procedures in place, such as wearing a mask or face shield when they are transporting their students, and many have elected to wear both to make sure they and the students are protected as much as possible, Harper said.
“That has gone very well also,” he said.
While wearing a mask is important for everyone, Harper also spoke about some of the other COVID-19 policies and procedures that have been put in place on buses for the year, including the installation of hand sanitizer dispensers at the front of each bus for each student to use as they are boarding.
That may not seem like a big deal to anyone who isn’t involved in school transportation, but the state is always very hesitant when it comes to installing any new additions like that to a bus, and there were several hoops to jump through to get the dispensers in place, Harper said.
“It is a huge deal to get that approved,” he said. “They know we’re kind of in some unique times and so they looked at it and approved it.”
Following recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, each bus is also sanitized every day once they get to school, Harper said.
He said employees go from back to front in each bus spraying an ionized cleaning solution that clings to surfaces and disinfects them after students are dropped off at school in the mornings, and they are ready to be used again to take students home that afternoon.
Harper said loading and unloading procedures have also changed from previous years.
In the past, the older kids have sat in the back in the bus with younger kids sitting closer to the front, but this year has seen a change in seating arrangements to lessen exposure risks while loading or unloading, he said.
This year, whichever students get on the bus in the mornings go to the back of the bus, and as more students get on, they fill in the seats from back to front, then, when they get to school, the bus unloads front to back.
Harper said that change means that students are no longer having to pass by others when they are loading or unloading, which helps limit their potential for exposure.
There have been students who ride the bus every day who have tested positive for the virus or were sent home because of close proximity to another student who tested positive, but additional measures taken on the buses seem to have helped slow down the spread, Harper said.
“We’ve had a few who had to be isolated after testing positive, and we’ve had a few bus drivers who didn’t get it from the school bus, they got it from family or wherever,” he said. “But we’ve managed to get all the routes out.”
Out of the 9,500 students enrolled in the county system, around 4,700 ride one of the 109 buses that goes out every day, so making sure there are enough drivers to run those routes is very important for the system, Harper said.
Schools can usually find another teacher or administrator to watch a classroom for an hour or two in the event that a substitute teacher is needed on short notice, but having to quickly find a substitute bus driver means that bus may not be ready to run on time, he said.
“If it doesn’t go, then somebody’s not getting to school,” he said.
Harper said other school systems in the state are having drivers run two routes every day or having mechanics, secretaries and even their transportation directors out driving buses every day because they are running low on drivers, but Cullman County has been able to avoid that thanks to the large number of substitute drivers on hand.
“I attribute that to the fact that I’ve got a lot of folks in Cullman County who want to help, they want to volunteer, they want to sub,” he said. “That’s pretty huge for us, and you don’t see that in other counties.”