"This thing can be done right" - Bus drivers prepared for upcoming school year

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JEFFERSON CITY — Local school bus services and drivers are ready to start the school year despite COVID-19 challenges.

“I'm really looking forward to seeing my kids,” said Blair Oaks bus driver Cary Mullinax. “You know, I really miss my kids. It's been five and a half months since I've seen them.”

“I started driving when they were in elementary and now they are in high school. It's like I have an extended family and I miss them,” Mullinax said.

Student Transportation of America (STA), which operates buses for Columbia Public Schools, said between 95 and 97 percent of its employees are returning this school year. 

Durham School Services (DSS), the bus service for Jefferson City and New Bloomfield Public Schools, said only a few employees opted to stay home. Most drivers are ready to return to work.

“They've been out of work since what, March of this year? They're ready to come back,” said DSS Safety Training Supervisor Dale Embry.

School buses will be sanitized after each route. DSS and STA are taking safety precautions by following advice from the CDC and local health departments.

“Anytime they have close contact with kids, they'll be required to wear masks,” said Embry.

“We're trying to only do ten students at a bus stop and if it's anything more than ten students at any particular bus stop, what we will try to do is relocate a bus stop to minimize any more than that at one particular stop,” said STA Vice President of Operations David Prince. 

Prince said it’s up to parents and administrators to determine if a child should ride the bus.

“Drivers aren't allowed or will not be in a position where they have to determine whether or not a child is sick or not,” Prince said.

DSS said if any bus transports a student with a confirmed COVID-19 diagnosis, the bus will be sanitized and out of service for 24 hours. 

JCPS and CPS will both load buses from back to front and dismiss from front to back to eliminate students walking past each other and possibly spreading the virus.

“We're also looking at one family unit per each seat so if you have a family that's just one child, he'll be sitting in a seat by himself. And if we have multiple kids, we'll try to load those guys into a seat where they’re having close contact with nothing but other family members,” Embry said.

Both districts are requiring seating charts on buses and encouraging parents to drive their kids to school if possible.

“It's gonna be a day-by-day thing. I am prepared for that. I know that's what's gonna happen. It's just containing whatever may occur, and then having a good plan in place and trying to follow through with it. Other than that, there's really nothing we can do. The kids need to go back to school,” Mullinax said.

STA and DSS say there is no paid sick leave or hazard pay for drivers if they get the virus.

Bus services will work closely with schools to contact trace and take precautions if a student on a specific route contracts the virus.

“This is an admirable position, being a bus driver and there's a lot of responsibility that comes along with the job. Maybe they or the community didn't realize how important it was in the past, but it is more important now. In a position that we're in to be able to set the example for the students and the community that this thing can be done right,” said STA's Prince.

“The question is, what happens if everybody wears a mask? What do we look like in two or three months? We want to focus in on the positive and what could happen if we do this the right way, as opposed to us not doing it the right way,” said Prince.