February is considered the peak of flu season. Though the current flu season has not generated breaking news about pandemics or new strains, influenza and whooping cough are still a concern for school districts and their transportation departments.
Raytown (Mo.) School District closed its 18 schools Monday, Jan. 30 to prevent a flu-like illness from spreading. Cleaning crews went into overdrive in classrooms, school offices and, of course, school buses.
Transportation Director Dennis Robertson said his department met to discuss what measures to take after learning that dozens of teachers, students and district officials at the suburban Kansas City school district had called in sick Friday, Jan. 27. Reported symptoms included fever, vomiting, coughing and respiratory problems. School districts often opt for such closures to avoid losing state funding when attendance drops significantly.
Robertson said both bus drivers and technicians teamed up to scour the interiors of roughly 55 school buses before school resumed on Tuesday.
“We took disinfectant wipes and wiped down all areas that come into contact with students, such as seats and handrails. Then we took a spray disinfectant to all the buses,” he said. “They spent an extra three hours in the evening on Friday and then finished up on Monday.”
Robertson noted that his bus drivers are usually extra careful during flu season and frequently wipe down handrails and other germ-ridden areas.
“A lot of the drivers are religious about doing that on a daily basis,” he said. “Most of them have hand sanitizer and we keep it in the drivers’ common areas. It’s worth the extra effort to keep drivers healthy.”
When four confirmed cases of pertussis, or “whooping cough,” arose in two Milwaukee-area school districts in late November, Mequon-Thiensville (Wisc.) School District alerted parents via e-mail and assured them that all school buses would be sanitized.
The district has contracted with AllTran Services Corp. for 45 years and this was the first incidence of pertussis, according to Mike Gross, manager and co-owner of the school bus company. When Gross first heard about the whooping cough cases, he initially had difficulty finding information about the disease. After many phone calls and Google searches came up short, Gross decided to contact the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
“I called the CDC in Atlanta to talk about how this disease spreads and how contagious it is,” he said. “We immediately brought in a crew of bus drivers and workers from the shop to sanitize all the buses. They used Lysol sprays and Clorox wipes and literally covered everything inside the buses for about four hours one night.”
Gross added that a specialist from the CDC provided “very good advice” and offered helpful tips that went beyond the standard recommendations, like keeping tissues and hand sanitizers on school buses.
Staying Healthy a Major Challenge for Bus Drivers
Still, school bus drivers remain vulnerable despite these precautions, emphasize two industry veterans. Peter Agostini, president and CEO of his family’s school bus operation, New Britain Transportation, said bus drivers are exposed to illness every time a child walks by them.
“School bus drivers might see 200 kids a day, so the exposure they have is really great. You would think they’d be out sick all the time,” said Agostini, who is also president of the Connecticut School Transportation Association.
Allan Jones, Washington state director of pupil transportation, started his 34-year career driving a school bus back in 1977 and said the job’s biggest downside was being exposed to so many germs.
“I spent 14 years being a school bus driver in Seattle, so I know drivers are around a whole bunch of little germ carriers. I have never been sick so many times, with both cold and flu, as I was during those years being a bus driver,” he recalled.
Driver absenteeism is a major stress for transportation directors, Jones continued, when they cannot cover their routes. He remembered a situation in Spokane about six years ago, when multiple drivers were absent due to illness one Monday in January.
“So many drivers were calling in sick that they couldn’t operate their routes. They had to figure what they were going to do,” Jones said. “With that many sick drivers, some of the buses don’t show up and then what? They couldn’t find enough subs.”
School bus drivers and other school personnel can find useful tips online from the CDC, National Education Association, American Red Cross or National Association of School Nurses, and many school districts offer resources on their own websites as well.