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Rowan-Salisbury Schools sorts out transportation logistics in preparation for full-time return to classes

SALISBURY — Rowan-Salisbury Schools will send elementary students back into classrooms four days a week by the end of this month, and that comes with new logistical challenges, including transporting twice the number of elementary students.

Rowan-Salisbury Schools administration requested a month’s time to prepare for the move to plan A when the school board approved the move last month. That includes time for teachers to plan, getting schedules sorted out and figuring out how to get them to school.

RSS Transportation Director Tim Beck said the pandemic has made him realize how strong his staff is. He is confident the department will make it happen, but worrying about all the details is part of the job.

“I think if you were to ask any administrator whether they’re a principal or a director or anybody that’s responsible for a department, I think if you were to get an honest answer from them, I think it’s just somehow embedded in our job description that we worry,” Beck said. “Because we want things right, we want things to work out.”

Beck reiterated a point he made in August when the schools were approaching reopening for students for the first time since March.

“We’re in uncharted territory,” Beck said. “We’re doing things that, historically, we’ve never done. We’ve never broken up our students into A group and B group. We’ve never done that. We were very successful in doing so and its really worked well since Aug. 17.”

For the entire school year, the schools have been operating sets of routes for students in different cohorts. Now, for K-5 students, there will be one set of routes for all four days.

Beck said the move will ultimately simplify what the district is doing, but it has to re-do the work it did to split the routes. Ideally, the district would be transporting all its students five days a week. In conjunction with allowing a move to all in-person classes, the state lifted a 24-student capacity limit on buses for K-5 students. Beck said the district will not be able to carry all students while social distancing on buses.

He said some students may not want to ride buses after the change, and the district is in the process of identifying who will be riding in plan A. Naturally, the number of car riders has climbed during the pandemic.

“The biggest thing is just making sure that we don’t miss any students that need transportation, and we’re hoping that all of the students that are currently riding the buses now, A and B days, we can simply put them back together onto one condensed route,” he said.

Beck said most elementary schools do not share buses with middle and high schools, and that is a benefit. The district’s transportation staff do not expect route times to change for eighth- through 12th-grade students.

Drivers are all given personal protective equipment. Buses were cleaned between routes before the pandemic, but those procedures have been ramped up and the drivers also spray sanitize the buses. On Wednesdays, the same days schools get deep cleaning treatment and classes are all virtual, the buses get extra attention as well.

Brittney Burgess, who coordinates the district’s use of the state’s transportation management database, said special-needs students, who will attend four days a week at all grade levels, are mostly on different buses already and do not pose a significant challenge adapting to new routes. The district will combine the routes that cover certain areas for each group of students.

“We try to keep it as close to what the students are used to as possible just to not disrupt their routine,” Burgess said, adding things may change slightly.

A continuing challenge across the state is making sure schools have enough drivers. Many teacher assistants are bus drivers, which helps cover those grade levels. The district should be able to transport all elementary students with drivers it has now, but it is always looking for more drivers.

Most drivers for middle and high schools are outside drivers — meaning that is the only position they hold with the district. Beck said the pandemic has made it more difficult to retain those drivers because many are older people at greater risk of serious illness due to COVID-19 and opted to stop driving.

When classes began, the district condensed its routes and removed some buses from its daily fleet. There were fewer total students riding buses and much fewer on any given day because they were split into two cohorts. All this added up to the district needing fewer drivers so it could keep up despite the drop off of outside drivers. The same system will continue for middle and high school.

“That’s really our saving grace right now,” Beck said.

All buses the district used for elementary routes before the pandemic will hit the road on March 29.

But there are a mountain of other items on the to-do list besides sorting out transportation logistics. Associate Superintendent Anthony Vann said the district is thinking about everything: how students line up to use restrooms, get lunch, eat lunch and walk through the halls. The district has requested more thermometers and may increase its sanitation procedures in elementary schools.

The goal is to get as close to 6 feet of social distancing as the district can manage, but Vann said it will not be possible in every classroom.

The district’s staff originally gave a recommendation to return on March 22 if the Board of Education wanted to return to plan A, but the board added a week to that date to give the district time to identify a possible post-spring break spike and allow time for teachers to get second doses of the COVID-19 vaccine.

“That worked out better on the operational side,” Vann said. 

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