Mis-Guided: The Need for School Districts to Develop Their Own Response to CDC Guidelines

By Tim Ammon and Tom Platt on May 22, 2020

The recent reopening guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) are

well intentioned, and their provision is appreciated. We commend the CDC for recognizing the importance of school transportation to the safe reopening of schools. We are concerned, however, that this guidance cannot be broadly identified and applied as universal best practices.

The guidelines are devoid of critical operational context. They also ignore the concurrent financial crisis that is likely to substantially reduce operational budgets. While the CDC does suggest the guidelines be applied “when possible”, that caveat will offer little help to the practitioners responsible and accountable for trying to implement the guidelines.

As we see it, the key roadblock to broad implementation of the CDC’s guidance for school transportation is resource-based. A reasoned attempt to apply the guidelines will create an unworkable scenario for most school districts, even those with the best of intentions. The basic arithmetic of the guidelines speaks to why:

  • Assuming the use of a conventional 72-passenger school bus, the allowance for 72 passengers is based on putting three students in every seat and using all 12 rows of seats.
  • Typical planned loads of 48 students are more common, regardless of the 72-passenger capacity.
  • The CDC guidelines suggest placing 1 student in every other row, or more simply stated, where there used to be 4 to 6 students permitted there should now only be 1. This would permit maximum loading of 12 students per bus.
  • Reducing the use of school bus capacity by 75%, which is what happens if you are able to transport 12 students on each bus run where before you transported 48, implies that you will need many more buses to provide the same level of service.

Based on the proposed CDC guidelines, your school district would need to provide 3 to 4 times as many route buses to support service delivery at reopening. This is a wholly unrealistic and impractical planning scenario in the financial and operating environment that is likely to be present for the 2020-21 school year.

The absence of this critical context in the CDC guidance will place school administrators and transportation managers in an untenable position if the guidance is strictly considered as best practice for school reopening. Districts will inevitably be forced to explain to parents why they cannot comply with the CDC guidelines or why they cannot provide transportation services. We believe the CDC guidance places business managers and transportation professionals between the proverbial rock and a hard place. We also believe there is a better way.

At DSG we believe you have no choice but to focus on practical mitigation strategies rather than unachievable goals. For example, expanding on how recent literature describing how the virus transmits from surfaces and what this implies for cleaning strategies on the bus would be much more meaningful and useful for people tasked with responsibility for actually providing services. Similarly, identifying what is feasible for load factors on the bus and then determining what this implies for desired educational strategies and seating plans in the classroom would be far more practical than imposing or implying a strict loading limit for the bus.

What has become abundantly clear to us is that school districts should not expect to receive guidance at a level of detail they would prefer or that will be required to develop unique plans based on the needs and expectations within their communities. As an alternative, we suggest school districts begin with a risk identification and mitigation framework that is grounded in the real world requirements of service delivery and that is adjusted to the greatest degree possible to incorporate broadly-based guidance such as that recently provided by the CDC.

Safe access to education institutions will be a key element in the economic and psychological recovery of the nation. Transportation will be the enabler of access to education for millions of students and families. Designing a school start plan that recognizes the intent of the CDC guidelines while also acknowledging the fiscal and logistical realities of school transportation is the 90-day challenge that we all must meet. Creating a risk identification, mitigation, and response plan will provide districts with a more robust structure for ensuring that students can get to school, and parents and caregivers can get back to work.