JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Keeping students safe on their morning bus ride during the COVID-19 pandemic is just one of many concerns Duval County Public Schools has as it prepares for a possible return to school campuses in the fall.
Student transportation was a small part of a lengthy discussion about reopening schools during a virtual Duval County School Board workshop on Wednesday morning.
The challenge for the district is making sure students adhere to the current recommended Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines on their morning commute to school.
Under the current guidelines of six-feet of social distancing, the district would have one student per seat every other row in a school bus.
That means a bus that normally fits 65 to 77 students would only be able to accommodate nine to 11 students, according to Paul Soares, Assistant Superintendent of Operations.
“We don’t have the buses to accommodate,” Soares said. "If the answer was to try to get more buses just to increase our bus capacity, you really can’t get them. The deadline to order new buses was back in February, and you just simply can’t get Florida spec-compliant buses in 60 days."
If the district wanted to vary arrival times and make multiple trips, Soares said that it could cost the district an extra $12 million, making that option cost-prohibitive. Soares said the district hopes the guidelines will be relaxed in the future.
Other ideas tossed around at the workshop included asking students who ride the bus to wear a face-coverings or limiting bus capacity to 22 students.
“Really, the practicality of any of this social distancing students at school, putting nine children on a bus, there’s so many things about the recommendation from the CDC that I think that it’s actually impossible to implement in our school system,” said board member Charlotte Joyce.
Those same social distancing guidelines, if in place when the new school year begins in August, would affect classroom sizes.
“Based on the guidelines for the CDC, probably the maximum we could put in a classroom, and that’s removing the anything extra such as a bookcase or small group tables, the most we probably could fit, meaning the social distancing guidelines, would be 12 students,” Superintendent Dr. Diana Greene told board members Wednesday.
Group dining is also a big concern, Greene said.
“In a typical cafeteria, we may be able to serve anywhere from 350 to 450 students. Using the social distancing guidelines, that is reduced by almost 75%. That would be only about 100 to 140 students that we can actually serve in the cafeteria,” she said.
As a solution, the district said it is exploring grab-and-go options for students where they can get food and eat outside.
While students are still expected to return to campuses in the fall, the district is preparing for the possibility of continuing distance learning. Greene said she hopes to have more direction from the state on what will happen next school year by mid-July.
“What I tell people is it’s not about whether we’re opening, it is what will it look like when we open,” Greene said. “Will it be everyone’s coming back to school, will it be that we have a hybrid of some students in school, some other students on Duval Homeroom or will it be that the governor has stated we’re not opening schools until after Labor Day.”