How school bus drivers are facing fear and uncertainty during the pandemic: We 'get put on the back burner a lot'

Beth Greenfield
·Senior Editor
·10 mins read

For Robin Stout, driving a school bus is much more than just a way to pay the bills. That’s why, when her Missouri school district abruptly switched to remote learning in March because of the coronavirus, like so many districts across the country, she continued driving, as a volunteer, to deliver school meals that kids in her rural “blue-collar” area depend on.

“I did it because I love what I do,” Stout tells Yahoo Life, getting choked up with emotion. “When you have kids that you start with — in kindergarten — and you’re watching them grow, they’re your kids, too, and you’re just seeing them through. Building a rapport.”

It’s why she was so excited — and anxious — about school reopening last week, with hers one of the few districts in the area offering five-day in-school learning (with remote and hybrid options, too). And it’s why she was temporarily crestfallen when, just a week before school was to start, her 13-year-old son came down with flu-like symptoms.

School bus drivers in Robeson Township, Penn., prepared for the start of the school year and new precautions during the coronavirus pandemic. (Photo: Ben Hasty/MediaNews Group/Reading Eagle via Getty Images)
School bus drivers in Robeson Township, Penn., prepared for the start of the school year and new precautions during the coronavirus pandemic. (Photo: Ben Hasty/MediaNews Group/Reading Eagle via Getty Images)

“I'm practically in tears this morning. Soooo looking forward to starting back on Wednesday,” she shared on a Facebook group for school bus drivers, going on to explain that she called the doctor to get her son a Covid-19 test and that she was worried about her 14-year-old daughter, too. “I can't believe this is happening NOW. These kids were looking forward to going back 5 days a week, playing their sports. I haven't driven my bus since March… Sending out good vibes to our whole Bus driver community.”

Stout’s son’s test did come back negative, and she was able to start driving. But the rollercoaster of emotions she has experienced, all before school even started, typify what many school bus drivers are going through at the moment, as they deal with fears about infection, job security and having to police kids about mask-wearing, all while remaining vital, calm forces for the more than 25 million U.S. kids who, in normal times, ride more than 480,000 school buses each day.

“We are the first face a child sees in the morning outside of their home, and we transport a lot of special-needs kids… we carry wheelchairs down flights of steps. They grow a bond with the kids — and especially the parents, who entrust us with their lives,” Michael Cordiello, president of Local 1181, New York City’s school bus driver union, tells Yahoo Life. Passion like Stout’s, he says, is “very common” in the field. “There are people who take this job and don’t last a week or a month, because it’s a special person who devotes themselves to this, and they become very much attached.”

In order to keep their drivers safe, 1181’s parent union, the Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU), which represents some 20,000 school bus drivers (though not all school-bus drivers are unionized) in states including Illinois, Texas and New York (representing 8,000 drivers in NYC alone), has been fighting for a range of pandemic safety protocols — as have many other unions around the country, including in Jacksonville, Fla., where an agreement on such protocol just narrowly avoided a drivers’ strike.

Drivers in other districts, including those in San Francisco and Blaine, Wash., have faced mass layoffs, compounding a financial hit that so many drivers faced back in the spring when schools went remote and bus drivers were not part of the CARES Act for mandatory funding. “Our members were laid off with no benefits, so we’re faced with a horrible situation,” John Costa, ATU international president, tells Yahoo Life. “A lot of them have no healthcare and are collecting unemployment, so that’s a big concern.”

For those who do have work, the protocols — those put forth by the ATU, at least, in its school bus safety check-list — includes designing routes and seating to allow for social distancing and avoid overcrowding, as recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; having a vehicle properly cleaned and disinfected and leaving time in a route for that to happen; properly functioning windows, fresh-air vents and air settings; fully working HVAC; masks for drivers and masks provided for students who do not have their own.

A sign about required masks is displayed on a school bus parked at the Winter Springs Transportation Hub of Seminole County Public Schools on Aug. 13 in Winter Springs, Fla. Not all districts are requiring students to wear masks, though, adding to drivers' anxieties. (Photo: Paul Hennessy/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
A sign about required masks is displayed on a school bus parked at the Winter Springs Transportation Hub of Seminole County Public Schools on Aug. 13 in Winter Springs, Fla. Not all districts are requiring students to wear masks, though, adding to drivers' anxieties. (Photo: Paul Hennessy/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

“We were a little disturbed as we were hearing some reports coming in that the operator was told [by an administrator] to take off their mask after boarding,” Costa says, adding that the union created a virtual command center to educate everyone on the union’s “proactive” demands. “Another problem was with taking temperatures [in districts that require it before boarding]. What do we do if a child does have a temperature? Do we not move the vehicle? Is the parent supposed to stay? The parent is not always there.”

And then there’s the sure-to-be-difficult task of getting students to follow mask-wearing requirements, where they even exist. “It was a big responsibility keeping them in line before COVID was even a thing,” Stout says. “Now making sure they have a mask, and feeling the responsibility that they got somebody else sick, is that going to fall on me? That is scary.”

Another concern, Costa says, has been how to safely bring drivers into the office where they punch in before starting their shift, as it can get crowded. “We’ve lost 85 members to COVID — at least 18 in New York City — and that was back in February and March,” Costa adds. “I don’t need any more drivers to pass away or spread it.”

Bus driver Robin Stout felt "blessed" to have received this hand-drawn thank you card from a senior who graduated, and who she was unable to say good-bye to because of the abrupt school shut-down last spring. (Image courtesy of Robin Stout)
Bus driver Robin Stout felt "blessed" to have received this hand-drawn thank you card from a senior who graduated, and who she was unable to say good-bye to because of the abrupt school shut-down last spring. (Image courtesy of Robin Stout)

It’s a fear very much on the minds of the drivers themselves, including Cor’Darius Jones, a driver in Escambia County, Fla., who tells Yahoo Life that masks are not required in his district. “The only thing I can do is offer a student a mask… So, they wear them all day in school, where they’re required. But once they get back on the bus, it’s like, ‘poof.’ And of course, I can’t do anything.”

Jones, who is known by his 6,000-plus Facebook followers as Mr. Bus Driver, chronicling his experiences behind the wheel, went back to work on Aug. 24, after a nail-biter series of months in which he was “fortunate to get a summer-school route” but still living very much paycheck to paycheck. Still, Jones tells Yahoo Life, he loves his job and, like Stout, sees it as more than a job.

“Bus drivers get put on the back burner a lot,” he says, noting that they often field backlash from parents, schools, teachers and even fellow motorists. But, he adds, “what people don't see on the side is we are the very first person that these kids are going to see in the morning… Unfortunately, a lot of these kids, they'll go home to an unstable home. So, if I can take a child on my bus and I can just sit them down, [ask] ‘How are you?’…if you keep this routine, you don't give up, these kids build relationships with you and they look at you like a role model. And being that role model is something you have to carry with you… and understand that, even with all the backlash, you still have a job to do. It's not just about transporting them from one place to the next. It's about making a difference.”

Among the new challenges of 2020, he says, is having to create a seating chart — so that, if someone were to become infected, it would be easy to trace and alert their contacts — as well as new extreme-cleaning protocol, which has gone from a bit of sweeping and trash pickup to 20 minutes of sanitizing. “I actually used one whole full spray bottle just yesterday, from the morning and afternoon,” Jones says.

A major challenge for Christina Wolfe, who is a bus driver in Hanover, Pa., has been the weight of uncertainty. After having been put on standby, she’s anxious about whether or not her run will resume. “I got into this occupation because I love children,” she tells Yahoo Life. “I started driving after giving up being a foster parent because of the heartbreak of the system. I thought it would be a good, stable occupation. This virus and shutdowns have shown that not to be the case. Many drivers are choosing to retire out of fear, and some are looking for other jobs out of necessity.”

While many of the ATU drivers are “eager to get back to work,” says Cordiello, “they want to do it safely.” And because the industry, in general, has “an age that is higher than in most other industries,” he says, many are concerned about being in a high-risk group, pushing some, as Wolfe notes, to retire.

But for many drivers, who are still, in a way, getting over the abrupt shutdown in the spring, and their inability to say goodbye to kids they watched grow up, the job is one they will ride out for as long as possible. That certainly goes for Stout, who shares an image of a hand-drawn thank you card she received over the summer from a student who graduated.

“I never got the chance to say goodbye because of the abrupt end of the year. I met her my first year and she was so shy… It was a pleasure watching her finally blossom a bit there last year,” she says, adding that she had sent the student a graduation card, along with goodbye-for-the-summer cards to all her students. “When I received this card,” Stout adds, “I felt so blessed. It’s so rewarding for us drivers to know when we’ve made a positive impact on these young people.”

Video produced by Jon San

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