Vicki and Matt Bruening live on a Floyd County acreage with six children ranging from a sophomore in high school to a fourth-grader.
Like others in Iowa, the family makes a living in agribusiness: both Bruenings operate an agricultural repair business in New Hampton, and Matt farms with his uncle on family land nearby.
At home, the family raises goats and chickens, with the help of their kids. When COVID-19 shut down Iowa schools over the spring break season in March, farm life gave the Bruenings the benefit of staying busy — but as time progressed, the family was still concerned whether school doors would open in the fall.
“We were most worried about if they wouldn’t be able to go back at all,” Vicki Bruening said. “It’s been a different kind of school year so far, but it’s also been good to get them back in the classroom, back with their friends.”
Bruening drives her kids to school in the morning as a way to provide more time to get ready. In the afternoon while she’s at work, the family relies on school transportation from Charles City’s joint high school and middle school campus, and one of the district’s two elementary schools.
“Three p.m. is a pretty early pickup time and I can’t always be there, so it really needs to be that they ride the bus,” Bruening said.
This year, students ride the bus COVID-style: fewer students, more sanitizing, and siblings seated together.
Transportation strains on rural school districts may pre-date the COVID-19 pandemic, but the global health crisis challenged school officials to a new level of planning to safely bring students back to class for the 2020-2021 school year — and keep the quintessential yellow school bus safe for students and employees alike.
Jerry Mitchell, Charles City Community School District director of operations, compared the amount of work to prepare for the 2020-21 school year to his time planning for the Y2K glitch scare in early 2000, when he worked in healthcare services.
“I really planned as much for Y2K as what we have for this now,” Mitchell said. “We’re constantly talking and monitoring students, monitoring transportation, monitoring the buildings.”
“Everything we do, whether it’s on the buses or my custodians cleaning the buildings — are we doing enough, are we doing the right thing? That’s always in the back of my mind.”
This is the second in a series of stories IowaWatch focused on rural schools and issues they face with returning to school during a global pandemic. For a look at how other states and schools are faring, see Lesson Plans: Rural schools grapple with COVID-19.
A RURAL LANDSCAPE
The Bruening children are some of the approximately 1,560 students enrolled in the Charles City Community School District in north Iowa, which covers four communities in two counties — approximately 224 square miles in the 2018-2019 school year, according to annual transportation data filed by the district to the state, and published in January 2020.
Outside of central Iowa and university cities, Iowa school districts predominantly serve rural communities: since the mid-20th century as student enrollment declined in individual towns, school districts in Iowa rapidly consolidated with other rural communities to get state education funds, which are awarded by the government per-pupil.
For fiscal year 2020, Iowa’s 327 school districts projected a combined enrollment of 487,652 students in preK-12 grades, according to state data; $3.29 billion in state aid is budgeted for public school districts this year, spending a minimum of $6,736 per student before calculating state supplemental aid based off school district enrollment, which is submitted annually to the state by districts in mid-October.
A slice of that funding goes to transportation, a key service for many rural students. A report by the national research nonprofit Rural School and Community Trust reports that 9.3 million students in the U.S. were enrolled in rural school districts for the 2018-2019 school year. Iowa is one of 12 states where at least half of public schools in the states are rural schools, serving nearly 1 in 3 of the state’s public school students, the Rural School and Community Trust reported. Out of the state’s total spending in education, 30.6% that year went to rural public school districts.
During the 2018-19 school year, public school districts collectively spent $169.4 million in transportation operating costs, according to state data, averaging out to $696.41 per student transported.
Between 2018 and 2019 Iowa lawmakers approved $30 million in funding for school districts with the highest transportation costs per pupil to address transportation inequities, according to the National Education Association.
Out of seven school bus routes in the Charles City Community School District, four are dedicated to students outside of the town’s boundaries. Transportation picks up students on acreages and in the rural communities of Floyd, population of 300, known in the region for the annual Floyd Gospel Sing Festival; Colwell, population of 70; and Bassett, population of 65, which sits in neighboring Chickasaw County.
When district officials began to plan for social distancing on buses, adjustments followed.
Charles City district drivers normally haul 43-45 students on a 65-passenger bus; this year, a bus carries about 33-35 students, two students per seat, said Mitchell, the director of operations. By state law, students cannot spend more than 75 minutes a day on district-provided transportation to their school, which also puts rural districts in a bind planning for more routes.
PLANNING A NEW SCHOOL YEAR
By early June, Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds signed a proclamation requiring public school districts to develop a Return-to-Learn plan for the 2020-2021 school year, mandating that schools hold at least 50% of classes in-person unless approved by the state to hold temporary remote classes for up to two weeks.
Over the summer the Charles City district recruited more than 70 community members to planning committees to decide how students would return to school — ranging from district leadership, staff members, students, parents and outside education experts, said Superintendent Mike Fisher.
The district developed a hybrid learning schedule that split grade levels into attending in-person classes on opposite days of the week, which school leaders kept in place until mid-October. From Oct. 19-Nov. 2, the district is phasing grades 6-8 back into an in-person schedule five days a week. Because the high school is an older building with less efficient airflow systems, grades 9-10 will transition into a four-day in-person schedule, and grades 11-12 will transition to three days a week.
The Charles City district has not confirmed a positive case of COVID-19 since Sept. 23, when the district confirmed a staff member had tested positive; 44 individuals tied to the school district had tested positive by Oct. 1.
“People compare it to World War II as the last time schools were so broadly impacted by something systemic in our society,” Fisher said. “This is generational-shifting. We expect school to look different and be different and be better coming through this. We can use this to get better.”
Charles City routes for bus drivers average two hours and 20 minutes round-trip, and new sanitization practices can add up to 45 minutes a route for drivers. Districts with larger boundaries face a big challenge ensuring those buses meet social distance guidelines for COVID-19 and still reach rural students, said Chris Darling, director of the Iowa Pupil Transportation Association.
“There’s no way some school districts have enough equipment or drivers for a 77-passenger bus to go every other seat,” Darling said. “When you get out to a rural district like Pocahontas, they’re huge, Dubuque has huge boundaries. You can’t go out multiple times. … You end up with school districts that have a hard time doing triple routes or double routes because they are so rural, and every school district is so different.”
At an early September IPTA Zoom training session, Darling asked member transportation departments to raise hands onscreen if they had problems retaining or attracting bus drivers.
“Some school districts have lost four or five drivers, some lost one or two. They were having a very difficult time attracting drivers to drive school buses right now,” Darling said.
Larger school districts have offered signing bonuses — nearly $2,000 at one central Iowa district, Darling said — and individual healthcare coverage to new bus drivers; other districts such as Charles City have cross-trained custodial staff and associates to be licensed to drive school buses for afternoon routes, when full-time drivers might be transporting students for activities. Out of 22 drivers, the Charles City district only had one driver step back from the wheel temporarily.
“We’re pretty lucky because when I started here about seven years ago, I took over buildings and grounds, and also transportation. At the time it was really tight on drivers, so what we did is every time we hired a new custodian, maintenance man, mechanic, there’s a requirement as part of their job description that they go ahead and get a bus license,” Mitchell said. “We’re one of the few districts that are sitting pretty well for bus drivers.”
It’s not a solution for every district, Darling said: “You’re going to end up in an overtime situation almost on a daily basis.”
PAYING FOR THE PROTOCOL
Through the federal CARES Act passed on March 27, the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) Fund awarded $71.6 million to Iowa school districts for COVID-19 assistance, and $26.2 million to Iowa schools out of $3 billion awarded to the state through the Governor’s Emergency Education Relief (GEER).
In the 2018-19 school year — the last year recorded by state data, before COVID-19 protocols influenced district spending — the Charles City district reported a net operating transportation budget of $331,592.53 to the state, about $505.09 per student using transportation services.
Out of this spring’s ESSER Fund, the district budgeted $70,000 to support remote learning and $45,000 for health and safety measures, which included cleaning and managing transportation services for students, said Mitchell.
Funds are awarded to public school districts, but private schools also receive funding through “equitable service” provisions.
That means CCCSD received $315,302 through ESSER, but $33,683 went to the private Immaculate Conception Elementary School in Charles City to support IC students who use CCCSD school transportation and other services. Through GEER, the district received $95,600; $9,200 went to IC students.
It’s helpful, Fisher said, but hard to know how long the district will have to make those funds last.
“Depending on how long the pandemic goes on, it absolutely can start to drain those resources,” Fisher said.
FOLLOWING THE RULES
When the Bruening family decided their kids would be riding the bus home from school on in-person class days, following the rules would be paramount, Vicki Bruening said.
“‘All right kids, whatever those rules are, you need to follow them,’” Bruening recalled saying. “I think the district did a really good job of creating that structure and those rules to make sure that everyone would be safe.”
The state does not require face masks or shields in public school facilities, and the Iowa Department of Public Health points school districts planning for transportation services to the Centers for Disease Control guidelines on mass transit, which recommends designating separate doors for entering and exiting buses when possible.
Most transportation departments Darling works with set protocol at two students per-seat and required masks on all students and drivers in the buses. Charles City assigns seats on every bus and tries to keep family members together so contact tracers can quickly identify which students sat where if a person later tests positive for COVID-19.
“This is generational-shifting. We expect school to look different and be different and be better coming through this.”Superintendent Mike Fisher
The district requires the seat behind the driver and the seat on the opposite side of the aisle remain empty. Hand sanitizer is available to every student who enters the bus; drivers use pump sprayers with disinfectant every time the bus empties. Charles City students are required to wear face masks while on school transportation.
Like household disinfectant, products used by mass transportation and school transportation departments should be diluted household bleach solutions or alcohol solutions with at least 70% alcohol, according to the CDC.
“It’s a safety issue, so it’s no different really than any other safety issue that [drivers] deal with every year. We encourage the students to sit in their seat, we encourage them to wear their masks,” Mitchell said.
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Drivers transitioned to the cleaning. “I mean when you first heard it you’re like ‘oh no’ and it felt like a lot of work, but really it hasn’t been that big of an adjustment,” Jackie Walsh, a bus driver for two years, said.
“We sit in our seats and they load, and I’ll give the kids some hand sanitizer,” she said. “We sanitize after our morning rounds of picking up kids and dropping them off at school. And then I’ll sanitize again tonight when I get home.”
At IPTA in Urbandale, Darling refers school districts to a how-to video produced by Des Moines Public School District on how district staff sanitizes each bus with an industrial sprayer for seating, walls and doors, and disposable hand wipes at driver controls.
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As public health experts learn more about COVID-19 — especially once scientific consensus announced the virus can spread via aerosol transmission — school districts should continue to check for changed guidance from sources like the CDC, Darling said.
“I don’t think anybody has all the answers. We surely don’t, and the CDC, they don’t have all the answers because it’s still changing,” Darling said. “We listen probably more than we advise. I’m there gathering information that I could share with other school districts so when I talk to a rural school district, I try to give them ideas that other little rural districts have shared with us that they’re doing.”
IPTA also stresses the importance of basic bus safety with drivers and school districts, which risks being overlooked by this new threat, he added.
“If drivers don’t pay attention and children don’t pay attention, we will lose a child,” Darling said. “Driving the bus is only half of the deal. Managing children is the most challenging thing you deal with, and your personality is a big factor.”
Mitchell believes most of the new protocol will remain for school transportation departments in the future as standard practice, as well as some new services. As families in the district struggled with food insecurity in the aftermath of COVID-19 shutdowns, the department developed a new service for the community, delivering about 45,000 meals to families in need from school closure in March until July 31.
Some Charles City bus drivers continue that service today for the district: after completing routes at 9 a.m., three drivers return to the road by 10 a.m. with a van to deliver meals to district families in need.
“We still provided meals to the students. They have routes where they take meals and take them to the houses,” Mitchell said. “Any [driver] who didn’t do that was still paid, because the budget was already put in place. … They know they’re going to be taken care of, whether we’re hauling students back and forth to school or activities.”
“We want to remain relevant and vibrant — you see so many schools that continue to shrink in enrollment and become irrelevant, and we want to make sure that we have the resources and ability to offer education,” Fisher said.
As a parent, Bruening said she believes the district’s transition helped families feel secure in how their children would integrate back into the classroom.
“They did a really good job slowly transitioning the kids back face-to-face,” Bruening said. “Kids are so easily able to adapt. They do it and they’re happy to be back.”
Kate Hayden is a contributor to the Iowa Center for Public Affairs Journalism – IowaWatch.org. Hayden covers technology, innovation and entrepreneurship at the Des Moines Business Record and has worked at other Iowa newspapers. She resides in Des Moines with her various, unfinished pandemic knitting projects.