LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- After nearly a year away from the driver’s seat, Jefferson County Public Schools bus driver R.W. Fawbush is ready to get back behind the wheel once classrooms in Kentucky’s largest school district start reopening next week.
“I like driving, and I really like interacting with the kids in school,” he said Monday at the Nichols Bus Compound. “I have grandkids that are in school, so it’s really a blessing to me to do all of this.”
Fawbush is one of hundreds of JCPS bus drivers who will be driving elementary students to and from school during the COVID-19 pandemic starting March 17. Middle and high school students will return on hybrid schedules April 5, immediately after spring break.
The initial group of elementary children, who will come to classes twice weekly as part of a hybrid learning schedule, will be the first JCPS students to step foot inside a district classroom in more than a year. The district launched its “bus finder” website Monday so families can look up their bus numbers, bus stops and pickup times based on their home addresses.
“We want to assure families there will be a bus there to pick your child up at the bus stop on March 17 or whenever your child’s first day of school is,” JCPS Chief Operations Officer Chris Perkins said.
JCPS, like other school systems throughout Kentucky, were forced to suspend in-person learning in March 2020 at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. The Jefferson County Board of Education approved a phased reopening plan Feb. 25 with all grade levels operating on hybrid schedules.
Superintendent Marty Pollio originally recommended in-person learning for elementary students five days per week as part of his reopening proposal. JCPS, which is also offering families a virtual learning option, expects about 63% of students will return once classrooms reopen based on districtwide survey results.
JCPS has consolidated routes through hybrid scheduling for elementary students. The district had been facing a shortage of about 100 drivers to cover 900 routes, but the route total has since shrunk to about 780 with the change to hybrid scheduling for elementary students, Perkins said.
“We’ve got every route covered at this point in time,” he said. “In addition to that, we’ve been looking at some of our other departments who have drivers with (commercial driver’s licenses) that we can recruit onto our transportation team to assist with that.”
Riding a JCPS bus will be different for students during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Students will be offered hand sanitizer and, if they're not wearing one, a disposable mask upon boarding, Perkins said. Bus riders will be assigned seats, and families have been asked to check temperatures before sending their children to bus stops across Jefferson County, he said.
The district will also space students out "as much as we can on a bus" and at bus depots to enforce social distancing, he said.
"We want to make sure we educate kids first and provide them opportunities, but kids will be held accountable for following instructions, just like always," Perkins said.
Buses will also be sanitized between runs, including at depots. Marcus Dobbs, the district's new executive administrator of transportation, said drivers will use spray solutions for sanitation, which will take about five minutes per bus.
Exactly how many of the 778 JCPS bus drivers have been vaccinated against COVID-19 remains unclear.
Sixty-two percent of the district's transportation staff requested COVID-19 vaccinations, but JCPS did not have vaccine requests sorted by job titles, according to Communications Manager Mark Hebert.
"We've encouraged all of them to get vaccinated," Dobbs said. "... We have a number of individuals that have completed both doses already."
Dobbs joined JCPS on Feb. 22 from Fayette County Public Schools, which was hit with a $9,000 fine by the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration after it failed to report an employee death and other hospitalizations linked to an outbreak at a bus garage.
Dobbs told WDRB News he was among those at FCPS who were not informed immediately about the COVID-19 outbreak's impact on his employees.
"I was even unaware we had people going into the hospital," he said, noting that he's discussed the situation with some operations managers in his new department. "... We'll be following all protocols, all safety protocols."
Drivers like Fawbush believe the district's mitigation measures will work to keep them and their riders safe starting next week.
"I have confidence in what JCPS has already put in place for us to drive the bus safe," he said. "Fear is not a part of my life, so I really see that we're going to do this in a good and safe way."
Copyright 2021 WDRB Media. All Rights Reserved.