Zo’ Sheets, then a first-grader, waves goodbye Aug. 30, 2017, to her stepmother, Tracy Dionne, on her way to her first day of school in Augusta. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal file

About 80% of Maine’s students take a bus to school, according to the state Department of Education.  

How that will work this year, when districts trying to find ways to make sure students are socially distanced to prevent spread of the coronavirus, is still unclear.

To help districts know what is necessary, the state education department has provided guidelines that should be followed. These include requiring students to wear a mask, sit alone and be screened for COVID-19 symptoms before they get on the bus.

Due to the one-student-per-seat directive, many districts have had to rethink their bus routes and contract for more vehicles to ensure they are transporting students in a safely distanced manner.

Although many schools have adapted a hybrid learning model, even with the start of school this week, many central Maine superintendents are still unsure how many students will be riding buses to school.

Maine schools are in the “green” designation under the state DOE’s coronavirus safety scale. York is the only county in the state to be given a “yellow” designation, which occurred Friday. It is unclear what will happen with buses if school districts slide into the yellow or red zone.

At the Sept. 2 meeting of the Augusta Board of Education, Superintendent James Anastasio said many parents have not returned a survey distributed at the beginning of the month. While anonymous, the survey was intended to inform the district how many students to expect for in-person learning and aid in the development planning of bus routes.

The survey, which is anonymous, is meant to give district officials an idea of how many students to expect for remote learning and for bus transportation.

Anastasio said buses are “key components” to reopening the Augusta schools. Not having complete information from parents means officials must rely on only the responses they have received and on data from last year.

“We are going to roll the buses on Tuesday,” Anastasio said. “They’re going to bring students to school and run with the information that they have. The better the information, the more precise the routes can be.”

The Augusta school board voted last Wednesday to delay the start date at elementary schools by two days — to this Thursday — partly to make sure the buses were ready to bring students to school. Cony students will still begin Tuesday.

Augusta students who take buses will have assigned seating, according to Anastasio, and there is not room for students on other buses.

The district is also working to eliminate having students transfer from bus to bus.

 

REGIONAL SCHOOL UNIT 38

Regional School Unit 38, which contracts its bus service through Northeast Charter, has been able to keep its vehicle number at 15. 

RSU 38, which is conducting in-person classes every weekday except Wednesday, released its bus routes Sept. 1.

Superintendent Jay Charette said 24 students will be on each bus.

He said routes will be set so there are no students transferring between buses, and only appropriate numbers of students will be allowed on each bus.

The routes will be “scripted,” Charette said, noting students will not be able to ride other buses or go on friends’ buses. He said such restrictions will ensure safety and keep track of students in case of an outbreak. 

“We also have a large percentage that are arranging their own transportation,” Charette said, meaning some parents have chosen to bring their students to the schools instead of taking the buses.

The exact number of students taking buses this year is still unknown, and will be until school starts.

In compliance with state guidelines, RSU 38’s buses will travel with some windows down to increase air circulation.

“Not all of the windows have to be down, but some will be cracked so fresh air can come in the bus,” Charette said. “We are encouraging kids to dress appropriately.

 

WINTHROP PUBLIC SCHOOLS

Winthrop is a district that had to increase its number of buses, according to Superintendent James Hodkin. It has increased from 11 last year to 15 this year.

Northeast Charter, with which the district contracts for its bus service, will be responsible for cleaning the inside of buses before they pick up and after they drop off students.

Winthrop, which is also having four days of in-person instruction, with Wednesdays off, has adjusted its bus routes to ensure rider numbers will meet state standards.

 

FAYETTE CENTRAL SCHOOL

The biggest issue for Fayette Central School’s busing was minimizing route transfers between its three buses. The school is planning in-person classes, Fayette Superintendent and Principal Tara Morin said, and only 10% of families have opted for a remote-learning model.

Fayette, which offers prekindergarten through fifth grades, is located between Regional School Unit 38, Regional School Unit 73 and Winthrop Public Schools. Students who go to Fayette for elementary school can choose between the three for grades six through 12.

“We provide transportation for RSU 38 and 73 for middle and high school,” Morin said. “Two bus drivers run two routes and drop off students at the respective district. Then, the bus route picks up Fayette students and drops them off for the 8:35 (a.m.) start time.” 

She said fewer students attend RSU 73 than RSU 38, and parents of those attending the former district will drive their children instead of having them ride the bus. Because of that, Morin said, RSU 38’s bus routes can be divided in two and given equally to two drivers, who can drop off middle and high school students before picking up elementary school riders.

Between the middle and high school routes and elementary routes, Morin said, drivers will clean and disinfect the buses’ seats.

“Thankfully,” she said, “everything worked out perfectly.”

 

SHEEPSCOT VALLEY REGIONAL SCHOOL UNIT 12

Sheepscot Valley Regional School Unit 12 is planning on full, in-person classes.

RSU 12 includes Chelsea, Somerville, Windsor and Whitefield, and will modify its learning structure to whichever town has the highest color risk. As of now, all towns are green.

Buses will run as usual, according to district officials, and, like elsewhere, the priorities are making sure the proper number of students is riding on each bus and students are appropriately distanced. Masks must be worn at all times and hand sanitizer will be provided on each bus.

 

MAINE SCHOOL ADMINISTRATIVE DISTRICT 11

A video posted by the bus drivers in Maine School Administrative District 11 highlights the new bus procedure for students.

Students must walk to the end of the bus and sit alone, each having his or her own row. Students will be asked to sit on the opposite side of the person in back of them, so there will never be anyone directly in front of each boy or girl.

Masks have to be worn at all times, and they have to take hand sanitizer from the front of the bus.

At school, students will be divided into cohorts and rotate between in-person and remote learning.

Families in MSAD 11 were given the option of full-time remote learning.

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