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Driving a Yellow Nuthouse Through a Summer of Pandemic Madness

Updated: Aug 18, 2021

By John Rolfe

Instead of my usual summer job steering a mop at an elementary school, I’m now behind the wheel of a school bus, navigating the confusion of the pandemic.

Despite strident claims that kids are being traumatized by Covid restrictions, the only damage I’ve heard about during the last 16 months is to grade point averages. The interrupted school year and the shortcomings of remote learning created a glut of students requiring summer classes to resuscitate their grades.

Ordinarily, driving gigs at this time of year are reserved for my district’s most senior pilots, but need was so high that pay had to be upped from $20 an hour to $30 in order to attract enough help. Even then, in a sign of the times when “Now Hiring” notices are ubiquitous, mechanics and office staff had to be pressed into service as chauffeurs.

So I am blessed with hauling three blessedly quiet high schoolers, then a dozen or so rambunctious sixth-graders twice a day for four days a week. Besides the usual mayhem (roughhousing, cavorting in the aisle, cussin’), I’ve been dealing with Covid sickness. In other words, absolutely everyone is sick of the virus and its related inconveniences, so getting people to take precautions against the highly contagious Delta variant is a lot like herding demented cats.

Unfortunately, a poorly-worded directive from my school district in June created indignation and resistance among some drivers. It said “all unvaccinated students and staff must wear masks while on buses.” What it meant to say was “all staff and unvaccinated students.”

As the weather warmed up, parents began raising a mighty stink about their kids having to wear masks on hot buses (the big ones aren’t air conditioned) and they quickly turned Board of Education meetings into circuses of angry objection, much of it typically political.

I can understand the frustration of having to mask up again. As the pandemic appeared to wane, it felt good to be freed from mandates or strong recommendations. I’m fully vaccinated but given what most of mankind deals with on a daily basis (grinding poverty, hunger, war, violence, brutal repression and the like), wearing a piece of cloth on my face for 45-minute stretches hardly seems like an ordeal. Many Americans obviously feel otherwise.

I’m lucky that my summer bus has air conditioning. As the for the kids on it, they’re a mixed bag. Some wear masks correctly without complaint. Some wear them on their chin. Others ask for them (I keep a supply handy) only to use them as slingshots.

As Delta makes its presence felt ,I’ve reminded my precious cargo that we’re not out of the pandemic woods yet, particularly among young people, but they don’t seem worried. Some kids say they are vaccinated (12-year-olds and up are eligible). I don’t ask for proof or lay the law down about mask slippage.

So far, so good, though I suppose I should have learned my bitter lesson last summer. While working a custodial gig during a time of few Covid cases in New York State, I and my colleagues got lazy about our masks. No one we knew was sick, so what the heck. We barely wore them.

I ended up spending 11 days feeling like the tail end of a misspent life. One of my co-workers was hospitalized. You never know with this virus how it will strike. Its impact on the coming school year remains to be seen but as of this writing New York will follow CDC recommendations that include masks for everyone (kids, staff, teachers, visitors) in buildings and on yellow nuthouses like the ones I drive.

Meanwhile, the national uproar continues as the virus surges in areas with low vaccination rates (surprise, surprise). This country is plagued by people who seem to see some kind of virtue in defying common sense and prolonging the misery and costs of the pandemic. These are dangerously mad times in which we live.

I often say our society is like my bus, a roiling aggregation of pointless, childish conflict and antics. Unfortunately, we can’t take a mop to it. All any of us can do is roll on and hope for the best.


John Rolfe is a former senior editor for Sports Illustrated for Kids, a longtime columnist for the Poughkeepsie Journal/USA Today Network, and author of The Goose in the Bathroom: Stirring Tales of Family Life. His school bus drivin’ blog “Hellions, Mayhem and Brake Failure” is parked on his website ( with the meter running.



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