Despite nationwide bus driver shortages and pandemic-related complications, the school bus remains the safest choice for student transportation. According to the National Safety Council, students are 70 times more likely to get to school safely when taking a school bus instead of traveling by car.
Harris County Department of Education’s Center for Safe and Secure Schools (CSSS) says parents can ensure a smooth ride by talking to their children about bus safety rules and protocols.
“Riding a school bus is like taking any form of public transportation, so you have to know and abide by the rules,” CSSS Director Julia Andrews said. “There is a school bus code of conduct in every school district. If you don’t follow the rules, you might lose that privilege of riding the bus.”
Rules can be found on the district website or in the code of ethics parents sign onto at the beginning of the year. Besides being a school safety expert, Andrews is a former assistant principal. She recommends a list of must dos to discuss with your children.
“When getting on the bus, find the first open seat and sit down quickly, just like boarding an airplane,” Andrews said. “Buckle up. When getting off the bus, be sure you have all your items. Leave quickly and quietly so everyone can get to school or home on time.”
While it’s important for parents to go over rules with their children, it’s also good to meet the bus driver, study the bus route and drive it.
“Doing dry-runs and giving children landscape markers like a local store or church can be helpful,” Andrews said.
Younger students should know the name or number of their bus route, memorizing or tucking it into a backpack. Older students can save info on their phones along with emergency numbers in case of bus delays or accidents.
Encourage your child to read, start their homework or simply rest on the way home from a long day at school. Cell phones may be used but check district policies and remember sound should be muted. Pack an extra water for your child for the ride home. Although snacking on the bus is not generally allowed, most districts allow riders to bring along water, Andrews said.
While many districts are adapting to a shortage of drivers by making routes longer, some are shortening routes and asking parents to drive to central locations to pick up their children.
“Some districts are certifying coaches and administrators as bus drivers,” Andrews said. “There was a principal rolling up his sleeves getting on board as a bus driver.”
CSSS staff meet monthly with school law enforcement officials and operations managers from 26 local school districts in the greater Houston area to collaborate and work through school-related safety issues. Local and national safety experts provide workshops hosted for school district law enforcement and operations leaders. This year, pandemic matters continue to dominate discussions.
COVID-19 adds an extra layer to safety discussions with children riding the bus, Andrews said. Because the bus is an enclosed area, children and staff should follow district protocol about masks, but she encourages masking. District transportation uses a disinfection spray twice a day on the buses, before and after students come and go.
“Between spraying, bus drivers may be personally wiping down their buses,” Andrews said. “As parents, it’s important to reinforce good hygiene and hand-washing or hand-sanitizing with your children.”
Five health safety concerns top Andrew’s list of “must-dos” for students riding buses: 1) Keep hands to yourself. 2) Cover your mouth when sneezing or coughing. 3) Wear a mask. 4) Be alert of others around you. 5) Try to maintain a 3-foot rule from others if possible.
Lastly, Andrews reminds parents to listen to their children and monitor behavior which might include hesitation to ride the bus. Bullying can be the cause, and children may be afraid or ashamed to report it.
“The bullying code of conduct stretches to the bus because this is still school property,” she said.
Cameras are on board each bus to detect misconduct like bullying, Andrews explained.
“Bullying can be a safety hazard even for the bus driver,” she said. “Schools have discretion as to what happens when bullying is reported.
“With the shortage of bus drivers, I foresee there being little room for allowing misbehavior on the bus.”
General Bus Safety Rules (from the National Safety Council):
- Arrive at bus stop early, ideally five minutes early.
- Encourage children to never walk behind bus.
- Cross in front of bus at least 10 feet ahead of bus (or five giant steps in front), establishing eye contact with drive.
- If rider drops something when getting on/off bus, do not pick it up. Tell the bus driver instead.
- Look to the right before stepping off the bus.
- When walking to the bus stop, remember there is safety in numbers.
For more information about school safety measures, access Center for Safe & Secure Schools / CSSS Main (hcde-texas.org).