JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Weeks before the start of school, the union representing approximately 4,500 school bus operators says it still has not reached an agreement with its employers on social distancing protocols.
Duval County Public Schools Superintendent Dr. Diana Greene has said following Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines for social distancing on school buses is not feasible for the district, saying “it would take almost 10 hours to deliver” students if they were spaced according to federal recommendations.
A representative for Teamsters Local 512, the union representing thousands of school bus drivers who serve the school district, said she has taken phone calls from drivers who warned they won’t return to work under the currently proposed work conditions.
“At this point, we are uncertain of the drivers and the monitors that are returning due to the proposed guidelines that they are going to return to,” Teamsters Local 512 Business Agent Rebecca Cardona said. “Yesterday, I received a call from a driver with an underlying condition who wants to return to work but also knows returning to work could prove fatal for him.”
The union said a handout one of the bus carriers gave to operators during a kickoff meeting purported to outline the guidelines Duval County Public School set for bus drivers, including requirements for drivers to document students who don’t wear masks on the bus.
Another bullet point states seating children one to a seat is the goal, but also notes that “this won’t be possible on all routes.” In those, cases drivers are instructed to try to seat family members or classmates together.
“It’s not acceptable,” Cardona said. “The guidelines in place say that six feet social distance is a critical portion of keeping yourself safe as well as people around you, so you are not spreading this virus. As the guidelines are set right now, that’s not what’s going to happen on these school buses.”
CDC guidelines recommend employees “physically separate or force distance greater than 6 feet between operators and passengers.” The interim director of the Department of Health in Duval County, which advises the school board and administration, also recommends six feet of space or more between riders.
“Our recommendation still is at least six feet is considered an appropriate distance, and I emphasize at least six feet,” Dr. Pauline Rolle said. “And so, with that I encourage parents to take their kids to school. Any time you have folks spaced less than six feet apart it is an issue, but the Department of Health doesn’t make policy for the school board or for the buses for that matter. We provide data and guidance as it relates to CDC guidance — and CDC guidance states a minimum of six feet apart is appropriate and our executive order from the governor still states no more than 50 people in any given space and the surgeon general has released advisory that advises no more than 10 people be gathered together.”
Cardona says upwards of 50 students on one bus is typical.
“To give you an understanding of how those buses are set up: most of the buses in Duval County are 72- to 77-passenger buses,” she said. “Which means there are 25 to 27 seats on the bus. If there are two to a seat, you’re looking at 50-plus students arm-to-arm rolling down the road.”
Teamsters Local 512 representatives says the union is still negotiating with Student Transportation of America and Durham Services, two bus companies under contract with Duval County Public Schools. Neither company was available for comment at the time of publication.
“At this point the carriers have expressed they will abide by whatever DCPS implements. DCPS has made it clear social distancing will not work on the buses and students will be seated two to a seat,” said Cardona. “We are not willing to sacrifice safety.”
“We understand that children need to get back to their education. We also understand a lot of children learn better in a classroom setting. We also understand that teachers, as well as our drivers, would like to get back to work to provide financially for their families. However, we need to make sure whatever is implemented, the guidelines that we all are using, that the health and safety of everyone involved is of the utmost important.”