Back to school 2020: School bus safety concerns amid COVID-19 pandemic for when students return to in-classroom learning

CHICAGO (WLS) -- It's back to school time and some students around the Chicago area are heading back for in-person learning .

A lot has been talked about the COVID-19 precautions in the classroom, but what is being done to keep school buses safe?

The consensus among many parents, teachers and bus operators ABC7 spoke with is split. Some are confident with safety procedures, others are frightened.

"It's the unknown, at this point, that I think is the scariest," said Cicero Council President Rachel Esposito.

RELATED: School reopening during COVID-19 pandemic

Cicero District 99 is one of the largest in the Chicago area, with more than 11,000 students, the majority of whom take a bus. Although the first quarter will be all-remote learning, plans are in the works now for making school buses safe when in-class learning returns, including masks and distancing.

"If you're running those buses at half capacity, you're going to need double the buses that you normally have," Esposito said. "What happens when it's raining, what happens when it's snowing? We can't leave students outside in the elements, so we're gonna have to have enough space inside so we can social distance. Whether we're on a bus or in a classroom, the hepa filters and proper ventilation is something to consider; busing has become a real issue for a lot of districts."

Cook Illinois Operation runs more than 2,000 buses each day in the Chicagoland area. They provided buses for summer school, giving some insight into the safety procedures needed this fall.

"Of course everybody will have to have a mask on, on and off the bus, most likely we'll be wearing gloves and we'll be sanitizing, cleaning the buses at least three or four times a day after school, evening and weekends," said John Benish Jr., chief operating officer of Cook Illinois Operation. "What we're going to attempt to do is load the bus from farthest back going forward. Also one child per seat, normally there would be three children per seat, and try to skip rows."

More and more districts are joining schools like Oak Park River Forest High School, and making the call to begin the school year with all-remote learning. In-school safety issues, including transportation, will be reassessed down the road, based on the virus metrics.

"It's this whole big life of Jenga ,where one small move and everything comes down and that's the part everyone's afraid of, what if," said parent Nana Agyeman.

Former teacher Agyeman chose remote learning at District 103 in Lincolnshire for daughters Josephine and Savannah. He and his wife decided he would stay home with their children before the pandemic, providing helpful insight to an in-home education.

"We've got desks for the kids, everything's set up, iPads, holders, stands, we've even got these blue light lens for the kids because they're gonna be on the screen a lot!" he said.

"I don't think anybody would deny in-person learning is the best for children, but safety is our number one concern always," Esposito said.

Even though CPS is starting the school year with remote learning, when they do return, the plan includes: everyone must wear a mask, they'll have spaced seating charts and students will either sit alone or with a sibling, and buses will be cleaned and disinfected after every run. There's a lot of planning going on now for when students eventually go back to the classroom.
Copyright © 2021 WLS-TV. All Rights Reserved.