By John Rolfe
Colds, flu, stomach viruses, hoof and mouth disease …
If there’s an illness known to man or beast, school bus drivers will catch it thanks to our daily contact with runny-nosed, sneezing, wheezing, coughing, chundering urchins.
I hadn’t had a cold in years until I started driving my big yellow sickroom in 2018. In an uncertain world, one of the few sure things is that the kid who is a fountain of mucus (or worse) will sit directly behind you and spray germy goodies your way.
The first time a student heaves up some grub on your bus is a rite of passage and milestone in this profession. Until you hear the dreaded “Mr. Bus Driver, I think I’m gonna throw up,” you wonder how you’ll respond. (You dread catching the bug.)
With sharing a way of life on a school bus, my fellow drivers often develop rather nasty respiratory ailments. Last winter, I had a dry, wracking, whistling cough that tormented my wife for weeks whenever we tried to get some semblance of sleep.
And now coronavirus has been added to the menu.
While teachers, administrators, staff and parents voice their concerns about opening schools during the pandemic, I’d like to join the chorus on behalf of my brave colleagues, who will play an important role but are often overlooked.
Many of us are of ancient vintage (50+) and not in the most robust physical shape, which makes us especially vulnerable to the ravages of COVID-19, though we can’t be so crumbly that we fail our mandatory physical performance tests.
I get my aerobic exercise by shrieking at kids. Aggravation elevates the heart rate and driving a school bus allows you to work up a nice sweat at the sight of the hijinks and mayhem going on behind you. There’s a reason why the overhead rearview mirror is called the most dangerous piece of equipment on the bus. The compulsion to gaze into it (while taking your eyes off the road) is always strong. Now it will be almost a requirement.
You see, it will be up to us to make sure our precious cargo keeps masks on their sweet little faces while on the bus. Without a monitor — which, like drivers, are in short supply — we will have to figure out how to be in two places at once: at the wheel and among the kids. Our attention really should always be focused on not plowing the bus into something.
Along with enforcing the mask rule, we’ll have to keep kids separated by two rows of seats. That’s more doable when you have a dozen rows separated by an aisle and only 18 riders, as I do on my middle school run. It’s a tad more problematic when there are 51 intermediate schoolers and 48 seats, and the luggage compartment and roof are unusable per district policy. (Trust me, I’ve asked about stowing kids there in less trying times.) It’s easier to teach squirrels to ballroom dance than it is to keep young kids from getting in each other’s grill or piling on one another.
I’ve (vainly) expended much time and breath explaining to my young riders why it’s in their best interests not to distract me or cavort around the bus while we’re in motion. Last March, when coronavirus became a hot topic, I tried to calm their fears by telling them I would be disinfecting the bus after each trip, making it unlikely that they would get sick. I was tempted to add, “The only sure way to catch coronavirus is by standing up while the bus is moving, or not listening to the driver” but I thought that might be pressing my luck with parents whose little loved ones go home and repeat everything Mr. Driver says.
No one seemed to care or even react, anyway.
“They’re not listening to you,” I was cheerily informed by a nearby fifth-grader as the usual noisy hijinks continued.
“What else is new?” I replied. “I’m a father. I’m used to kids not listening to me.”
Don’t get me wrong. I ain’t complaining. I’m willing to have my temperature taken each morning and do what I can to make opening schools a safe endeavor. But the sobering reality is if we pilots of yellow chaos start getting sick in even modest numbers, districts will be hard-pressed to replace us. There’s already a national shortage of drivers and more than a few have retired because of the pandemic. As it is, qualified mechanics and office staff in my district are pressed into service during cold and flu season.
More parents will be driving their kids, but that’s going to make for world-class traffic jams around schools when we all converge at pick-up and drop-off times. But if that’s the worst we endure, let us all be thankful. It’s likely that no matter which course we choose — a full return, remote learning, or a hybrid of the two — someone will get the raw and possibly dangerous end of the deal.
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.