EDITOR’S TAKE Making Sense of the ‘New Normal’ Written by Ryan Gray | I

t’s safe to say COVID-19 is the largest international dis- ruptive force of the young 21st Century. Larger than the 9/11 attacks and the Great Recession of 2008. There are far too many examples today of society being forced to

rethink and reimagine how it goes about daily life. Rising unemployment, which as of this writing is at

22 million people, has wiped out a decade of job growth. The Washington Post last month reported that the U.S. has not seen this level of unemployment since the Great Depression. Talk about a 100-year storm. We’ve never seen stimulus package at the magnitude

of the $2.2 trillion (and climbing) Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act. One of its many provisions is to relax or eliminate federal requirements on taxing IRA and 401(k) account withdrawals for those directly impacted by the coronavirus. Americans have lost sizeable chunks of their retirement accounts, which only in the past several years fully recovered from the shellack- ing they took in 2008 and 2009. The federal and individual borrowing against the CARES

Act will result in a bill that we as a society may never pay back, as the national debt and deficit is forecast to hit World War II proportions, reported Bloomberg News on April 13. Meanwhile, education has been turned on its ear. Online distance learning has become the only way schools now teach our children. School buses no longer deliver students to school and home again, not to mention operating field, activity, sports and extracurricular trips. They deliver meals to hungry students and their families in communities all over the country. They deliver internet access via on- board Wi-Fi routers to students whose families can’t afford internet access to conduct online learning, or they live in an area with spotty service. Districts that don’t have Wi-Fi enabled school buses are instead delivering homework packets to students without internet. Transportation leaders certainly have much to con-

sider beyond simply when their school buses will once again be filled with students, rather than sandwiches and school supplies. The industry must prepare itself for the very real possibility that many parents of the estimat- ed 26 million students who take the school bus to and from school each day will refuse to let them board, once school returns to “normal.” Social distancing practices won’t suddenly end. Har-

vard University researchers suggested that the lack of a coronavirus vaccine should extend social distancing for another two years. One state calculated that keeping students 6 feet apart will reduce a 72-passenger school

10 School Transportation News • MAY 2020

bus to only 14 student riders. How would that even work when transporting students with disabilities? School districts are talking about erecting plexiglass to separate the school bus driver from the students. Are we talking school bus drivers wearing hazmat

suits and the need to retrofit buses with ventilation systems? Are emergency procedures implemented to sanitize school buses the new norm? If so, at what cost? And shouldn’t procedures be standardized? Student transporters are also arriving at the realization

that how they train employees is changing. With schools closed and remote working implemented, some districts and bus companies have turned to online educational resources to continue to provide professional development to its employees and keep them refreshed on their skills. Distance learning is here to stay, in some shape or form, for our K-12 students as well as employees. I would think that school districts would certainly be interested in growing their online learning curriculum and capabilities, not only to take full advantage of the investments made but to also increase their total enrollment. Before this pandemic hit, about 3 million students

across the U.S. were homeschooled. That’s about 3.4 per- cent of all U.S. schoolchildren, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. The organization found that 91 percent of these homeschool their children be- cause of concerns about the environment at school sites. What greater concern than a potentially killer virus lurk- ing who knows where? And if homeschooling increases substantially, how does school busing evolve? How do school bus operations survive amid this new

normal, especially with so much operational and bud- getary uncertainty in the nation’s 12,000 public school districts, where student transportation has always had to fight its way to the front of the funding trough? The potential impacts are as expansive as they are expensive. Amid all the questions and few concrete answers, now is the time for a good-old fashioned school bus resolve, creative thinking, decision-making and action. Last month, I suggested that the school bus industry has a chance to identify opportunities amid the evolving COVID-19 crisis. I was wrong. The industry has no choice but to embrace a new way of thinking and operating to create such opportunities. Anything else is too frightening to consider. ●

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