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‘We can’t drive a school bus virtually’: Carroll County bus drivers express health, safety concerns

When the school system decides between hybrid or virtual learning, the well-being of students, teachers and parents are often noted. However, two other groups of stakeholders are not always a part of the conversation. Bus drivers and building operation workers have spoken out about the hardships and difficulties their departments are facing during the coronavirus pandemic. Part one of this two-part series focuses on bus drivers while part two will focus on building supervisors, custodians and maintenance staff.

Last week, Stewart Herbst, a contracted bus driver for Carroll County Public Schools, and fellow bus driver Robert Meekins spoke about what could be improved for drivers amid the coronavirus pandemic and noted how they are sometimes left out of the health and safety conversation.

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On Monday, Carroll County’s Board of Education voted to return to hybrid learning Thursday. Both Herbst and Meekins told The Times on Tuesday they will not be driving until virus infection rates decline or until they can receive a COVID-19 vaccine.

Herbst, who is in his 11th year as a CCPS driver, did not initially plan to give up the job.

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“My wife would kill me,” he said.

Herbst, who drove buses for South Carroll High School, Mount Airy Middle School and Winfield Elementary School, said the students are great, he has few on the bus, it only takes a couple hours of the day and he feels like he makes a difference in his passengers’ lives.

“I learn a lot from the kids,” Herbst said. “I wish I had done this a long time ago.”

However, since the kids will return to in-person learning and the bus will be more crowded while cases are on the rise, he decided he can’t continue.

“There is no way I am going to jeopardize my health and safety and of my loved ones especially after being careful since the pandemic started,” a letter he wrote to the school board stated.

He said his contractor is now down five drivers.

Robert Meekins, right, is joined by fellow veteran driver Stewart Herbst as they discuss the concerns and challenges on being a school bus driver during a pandemic, on Wednesday, December 30, 2020.
Robert Meekins, right, is joined by fellow veteran driver Stewart Herbst as they discuss the concerns and challenges on being a school bus driver during a pandemic, on Wednesday, December 30, 2020. (Brian Krista/Carroll County Times)

Meekins, who is in his fourth year, said they’re more than drivers. They can be guidance counselors or problem solvers if the situation asked for it. He, like Herbst, has been transporting students in the small groups who have in-person classes and their buses have had fewer than 10 kids on board.

Herbst said the students never gave him problems in terms of safety protocols.

He and Meekins only had problems with the protocols themselves — or lack thereof.

In a letter he wrote to school officials last week, Herbst said it was wasteful for so many buses to pick up such a small number of kids.

“Other routes could be combined to reduce the number of buses on the road,” the letter stated.

It went on to state fewer buses could equate to lower vehicle maintenance, fuel costs and pollution. It would also result in less opportunity for accidents and less exposure to COVID-19.

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Mike Hardesty, the school system’s director of transportation, said last week he could not argue with points made in Herbst’s letter.

He said the short answer for the current and hybrid learning bus routes is that there was not enough time to adjust the routes from picking up all students during pre-pandemic learning to only pick up students in hybrid learning.

If a new learning model was more long-term, or if the board decided to implement virtual learning for the rest of the school year, Hardesty said, then efficient bus routes would be developed.

The board voted Monday night to remain in hybrid mode for the rest of the school year, unless the state directed them otherwise.

Hardesty said close to 260 buses were on the roads before the pandemic, and 200 buses remained on the roads even with fewer than 1,000 students attending in-person learning.

“It’s not a big cost item,” he said.

He also noted student attendance on the bus changes constantly.

Meekins said it is possible there are factors he, as a bus driver, is not privy to. But if it is possible to keep three out of four buses off the road, it could benefit the taxpayer.

“We all have the same goals to get the kids back in school,” Meekins said.

But he hopes every thought is given to safety when decisions are made.

Robert Meekins discusses the concerns and challenges on being a school bus driver during a pandemic, on Wednesday, December 30, 2020.
Robert Meekins discusses the concerns and challenges on being a school bus driver during a pandemic, on Wednesday, December 30, 2020. (Brian Krista/Carroll County Times)

Meekins said he knows the transportation department has faced a lot of challenges, he doesn’t want to be looked at as a troublemaker and he is appreciative of the county continuing to pay drivers during the pandemic. However, he wants to make sure the drivers’ concerns are heard and considered.

Herbst noted in his letter, which Meekins contributed to, that many bus drivers are in the at-risk category for the virus due to age, and they do not receive health care benefits like other CCPS employees.

“So, doing this job during a pandemic not only puts our health at risk but also exposes us to financial peril should we become ill,” the letter states. “Losing any of these great drivers would be detrimental to transportation.”

Meekins, who said he’s in the 60-and-older demographic, said he doesn’t want to be on the evening news “laying in a hospital bed, gasping for air with no family around me.” He said he is also concerned for his fellow drivers who are in the same age group or older.

Meekins wrote a letter to the school board in July requesting safety measures be taken to drivers. He requested Plexiglas barriers and clear plastic curtains on the bus, HVAC filters be inspected, health insurance as well as COVID-19 sick leave.

Meekins, a retired federal civil servant, said he does not think the school board listens to the county health officer, nor considers all the stakeholders when voting.

“I think the bus drivers can be overlooked in that process,” he said last week, adding that entering hybrid mode with a positivity rate close to 8% could be dangerous. Carroll’s positivity rate has since risen to 8.5%. He said he will not return until it drops to 5%.

Hardesty said he’s proud of the work of the drivers and was expecting more of a shortage this year. Although some had coronavirus symptoms, it has produced few absences.

The director said he would not want to comment on a potential driver shortage overall until they return to normal. However, he did note a lot of the drivers are substitutes and there have not been many participants to attend the training class that new drivers often attend.

The drivers’ letter had suggested the board wait until Jan. 25 or three weeks after winter break, to decide on hybrid learning. Meekins said by that point, the public could see an ebb in infection rates.

After the board’s Monday vote, Meekins said he doubts board members thought about them and the lack of options a driver has.

“We can’t drive a school bus virtually,” he said.

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