How will Murray schools move students safely?

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As the COVID-19 crisis continues, one of the issues officials with the Murray County School system is the transportation needs of students.

Classroom instruction is scheduled to resume on Sept. 8. The plan is to have traditional classes with additional safety measures in place and an option to take virtual classes from home.

However, there are two other plans. A “hybrid” system would mix in-school instruction with online learning. The other alternative would see all classroom instruction curtailed and replaced by online learning.

Mike Pritchett, the district’s director of transportation and facilities, is responsible for meeting the needs of students in each of these wide-ranging scenarios. 

“Our number one option is coming back to school,” Pritchett said. “We want kids in the building. That is, if it is allowed, and there are no restrictions in place so we can accommodate everybody. If it doesn’t happen, half of the kids would come on an “A” schedule and half the kids would come on a “B” schedule. That way we could reduce numbers inside the classroom, but would still run all of our transportation routes as normal and just pick up the kids that were actually coming to school that day.”

The last option is going totally online, which is the least desirable, according to Pritchett.

“Of course, our worst option is everybody is online,” he said. “That is what we don’t want. It makes it more difficult for everybody. You have to have everybody accounted for because attendance still counts and it’s a struggle of how do we make sure everybody is online and participating in the lessons. Second, is making sure everybody has access. We have done a lot in transportation to help prepare for that by getting 13 of our buses set up to have hotspots in them so we can drive them out and let people have access to the internet.”

Approximately 40 percent of the 7,000-plus students in Murray County ride the school bus, which equates to about 84 routes Pritchett said, so getting transportation logistics in order is of major importance and has been a district focus. If the school year opens as normal on Sept. 8, parents will see very little change in busing procedures, other than masks being encouraged but not required. Drivers, about 30 percent of whom are district teachers, will be required to wear masks, he said. Students will have their temperatures taken at school rather than on the bus, Pritchett said, because he believes it would be improper to send a sick child back without someone from the school contacting parents first. Parents will have to understand that there is no guarantee that the school system can protect their children from the possibility of catching COVID-19 by riding the bus, Pritchett said.

“Because you’re in that confined space for so long, it would be highly recommended (to wear masks) because I can’t guarantee that the area wouldn’t be a transmission zone,” Pritchett said. “You have somebody get on that’s asymptomatic and you didn’t know they were sick...that’s a confined space and you could be in close proximity to somebody. Our worst fear is we end up with a sick person on the school bus because they will affect a lot of people in different grade levels, but we have also added hand sanitizer to the buses and will be prepared for the students when they get on the bus.”

Buses will be sanitized in between routes, Pritchett said, and the school system will continue to stick to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidelines moving forward. One thing that is not feasible on buses is to create six feet of social distancing, Pritchett said, because it would take an exorbitant number of bus trips to get all of the students to school.

“Ultimately, we would have to have a disclaimer saying that there is no guarantee that your child or children would not get COVID on the buses,” Pritchett said. “There is no way to social distance appropriately on a school bus. If I did it would probably eliminate transportation altogether because, one, on an elementary route for example, I am taking about 70 kids per route. If I have to socially distance every child I could accommodate about 12 kids on a bus. I can’t run seven routes to pick up all 70 kids.”

Current bus drivers are being hired to work additional hours to sanitize the buses, Pritchett said, though some positions could be cut if the system has to go to a limited transportation option.

“We’ve had those discussions and we aren’t sure,” Pritchett said. “We want to keep as many of our drivers as possible, but can’t make any promises that if we go virtual, just due to the nature of budgets, we may have to do layoffs or something to some of those drivers and I just don’t know that answer.”

If the A-B hybrid schedule is put in place, Pritchett said the district would continue to run the same routes, just to the homes of students who attend on a particular day. Pritchett said it would be up to Superintendent Steve Loughridge to determine which students would attend on which days, and so on.

“I don’t know if they would do that by last names and keep family units together or if they’d go by rosters and divide them in half,” Pritchett said. “At the elementary and middle schools it would be a lot easier than the high schools because high school schedules are flexible and that makes it more difficult to decide who is and isn’t coming because you have to have classes big enough to draw FTE (federal full-time equivalent) funding. My vision is our routes will run like normal. We might have half the kids on the bus. That would let us space out kids on buses.”

The district has spent quite a bit of time studying other districts’ plans for the coming year, Pritchett said, with everyone trying to navigate uncharted waters and come to a common sense solution that works best for everyone.

Even so, school districts are not required by the state to provide transportation to students at all. If the virus flares up to a point in which the state tells school districts to cut out transportation, then there is the risk that Murray County Schools could be impacted, but Pritchett sees that as unlikely, he said.

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