By John Rolfe
Driving a school bus is ordinarily like coaching a synchronized swim team of cats … at 30 miles an hour. I thought it would be even more challenging after schools reopened last October in my district of New York’s Hudson Valley with a mask mandate.
I’d read and heard an awful lot about how kids would be even worse than adults when it came to wearing masks or at least keeping their schnozzes covered. But to my surprise, the third-through-eighth-graders I chauffeur have been very cooperative. Occasionally, one will board the bus without a mask (I keep a supply handy) and every once in awhile, I have to remind them over the P.A. to pull their masks up, “So we don’t all end up in quarantine.”
Maybe once or twice during the past six months, I’ve had to deliver stronger medicine as a warning, because Covid-19 remains an abstraction to many kids. They keep hearing about it, but the reality of it eludes them.
“Has anyone here had Covid or know anyone who has had it?” I ask to the usual silence that greets my solemn pronouncements. “Well, I’ve had it and I can tell you it’s no fun. You don’t want it and you don’t want to give it to someone you care about.”
When the coronavirus pandemic began sweeping the nation in the winter of 2020, the kids on my bus anxiously discussed it. One fourth-grader wore her headband across her face like a mask. I took the opportunity to tell them that they'd probably be fine as long as they washed their hands, ate their vegetables, got plenty of sleep, did their homework and chores, and listened to their parents, teachers and, of course, their bus driver.
I was tempted to add, "The only sure way to catch coronavirus is by standing up while the bus is moving" as a remedy for a constant problem. But I refrained, as there was already no shortage of misinformation and disinformation about Covid.
The kids now nod at my suggestions and sage advice … and behave. With fewer riders because of remote classes, and one kid per bench seat for the sake of social distancing, there’s less deviltry for them to get up to. One fifth-grader defied my "masks on at all times; no eating or drinking" rules by leaving a generous sprinkling of cookie crumbs on and around her seat, but this kind of outrage is rare and small spuds compared to the mayhem I’ve dealt with in the past.
As schools return to normal schedules, our buses steadily fill up and the weather gets nice, the main problem we drivers face is keeping kids from piling on top of each other and getting up to their usual shenanigans. The virus is largely out of sight and out of mind to them except for our occasional reminders.
Now that vaccines are flowing and the end of the pandemic is hopefully in sight, we’re all sick of masks. I feel bad making the kids wear them on hot days (my bus has no air conditioning), but they don’t complain. Based on what I’ve seen and what my colleagues have told me, kids have done much better with masks and behaved more responsibly than many adults have during the past year. There’s been no whining about their rights being taken away or a sinister conspiracy to control them (although I always try … mostly in vain).
All in all, it’s been a much smoother trip that I imagined it would be.
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 Celestialchuckle.com (https://celestialchuckle.com) with the meter running.