Veteran school bus driver: 'I really don't know how it's going to work'

This is part of an ongoing series exploring the challenges facing parents and child-care providers and schools during the Covid-19 pandemic. This is the story of Debbie McGraw, a single mother of two and a bus driver in New Jersey, as told to Megan Leonhardt.

I've been a bus driver for 19 years. I typically spend about five hours a day picking up and dropping off for three New Jersey schools in the morning and three in the afternoon. And a bus, like the big one I drive, holds 54 students. 

Sometimes in the past I've had a run and the whole bus was crowded. That has happened to me before — there's not one seat available. Then there were days at another school where I had only 20 kids and then another school I drove for with 30 kids.

Everything is subject to change, especially when you're a bus driver. You could've had three runs last year, but you might get four this year. We really should know our schedules by now, but with many schools still undecided about their plans to reopen, our supervisors haven't received a final headcount yet. 

So you just got to go with it. Just be prepared to do what you've got to do. But I really don't know how it's going to work this year. 

Social distancing? What social distancing?

Even before the pandemic started, every kid is supposed to have assigned seats on the bus. And I was told we're going to cut the total number of kids in half on certain days, with at least one district only having kids in class for four hours a day. 

But even with fewer kids, I'm nervous because I'm constantly trying to keep them in their seats. You look up, and you see one kid sneaking over to talk to a friend all the time. So I can't imagine what it is going to be like come September because even on a regular day, they won't stay in their seats. And social distancing them? I don't know how that's going to work out. There definitely isn't six feet of space when they're walking onto the bus. 

It happens all the time where you have some little 5-year-old who's sneezing and while she says "I'm sorry," you're thinking: Oh, she just got me.

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Plus, I don't have air conditioning on my bus. When the pandemic first started in March, some of the kids would get on the bus with a face mask, because their parents said they had to wear one. But by the time they got to school, they didn't have a face mask on. They got too hot. And September is going to be really hot.

What happens if they don't keep their masks on? I guess we're supposed to have masks on our bus just in case a child comes on without a mask. And if it happens a lot where kids aren't keeping their face masks on, we were told just to write it up. But this is just to show we're doing what we're supposed to be doing. You can remind the kids, but you can't make them.

If it works, that'd be great, but I don't think it's going to work. I really don't. On a regular day, you can't keep them in their seats or wearing masks, you know? 

On the front lines

I understand what the teachers are saying, how they're nervous. But we see the kids before the teachers actually see the kids. We're the first to let you know if they're sick or not. And we can't check temperatures before they get on the bus.

Before the pandemic, there were some days where parents would sneak a child on the bus knowing that the child was sick. So as you pull up to the school door, that child throws up on the bus.

And let's be honest, some parents do give the kids Tylenol in the morning to get them through the day, even if they have a fever. Now, you shouldn't do that — it's too dangerous. But I don't know if that will stop parents. 

That's why I want to wear a face shield because I have direct contact as they get onto the bus. They're right near my face. And when it comes to younger kids — I drive kids as young as pre-K — when they haven't seen the driver in a while, they want to greet you. I'm short, so they're right there at eye level. You don't want to be rude. But hopefully parents explain to their children that it's not safe right now. Give us your air hugs and air fist bumps and stuff like that. But I need to protect myself, so I'm planning to get a face shield. 

To provide additional protection, once we release the kids, we have to spray the bus down for the next run. You have to check your bus regardless to make sure there are no children left on the bus after each run. So while you are checking, you walk down the aisle with your spray, and walk back up with your spray. The kids can't get on the bus until the mist is gone and the seats are dry. That's when we can open our doors to let the children on. 

'I can't work from home'

I have to go to work, but I'm stuck in the middle because I have a son with special needs who just turned 9 years old and I have a daughter, 10, who's in the regular school system. Right now, my son's attending classes in the summer, but I don't have bus service because the school is out-of-district, so I've been taking him back and forth to school. During the school year, he normally has an aide in his before- and after-school care program who can help put him on the bus. I requested it again, but we don't know how that's going to work out this year.

His program is about 30 minutes away from me, so I if I do need to drive him, I can't just drop him off and circle back home to do my run. I don't know what I'm going to do. And I don't know my daughter's schedule yet. Most parents probably can work from home if their children are attending school part-time or remotely. But with me, I can't work from home. If I stay home, I won't have any income. 

In addition to driving, I also spend the time in between runs, about two hours a day, as a recess aide. But I don't know if I will be doing that this year because the school district is limiting in-class time to just four hours.

I asked my supervisor if my daughter could ride with me because I work for her district. This year she said no. Because of the pandemic, they want to keep the buses just for the kids who have to actually go that day.

My supervisor is always willing to work with me and to accommodate me to a certain degree, which I thank her for. But I might have to cut back on my hours or start at a later date or maybe have someone else do part of my runs. Maybe my son's bus driver can meet me at a midpoint. 

I'm checking emails all day long. They haven't emailed me about anything final yet; I'm watching the news constantly. I'm hearing some schools are finalizing a hybrid schedule, others are going remote only and I'm like, Why don't I see my district anywhere?! I'm just hoping for the best this year. It's really hectic.

Am I nervous? Very. But I just can't sit at home with no income.

Don't miss more in this series: 

  • Lack of school and child care could mean losing 'a generation of working parents
  • 'No solid answers': The scramble to reopen schools leaves teachers with concerns
  • 'I am definitely panicking'— Parents say school reopening plans leave them without any good options
  • Only 32% of companies returning to work have plans for employees' child-care needs even as many schools postpone reopening full-time
  • Millennial moms nearly three times more likely than dads to forgo work because lack of child care or school

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