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A group of school-bus drivers wants more safety measures on their buses to protect them from COVID-19
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A group of school-bus drivers wants more safety measures on their buses to protect them from COVID-19

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A group of school-bus drivers wants school officials to put more safety measures on their buses to protect them from COVID-19.

Thirty-one drivers met recently at Bolton Park to discuss their concerns about their safety and health amid the coronavirus pandemic. A week earlier, 50 drivers met at Bolton Park to talk about similar issues.

Many drivers said they participated in a Zoom meeting on Nov. 6 with several school administrators, but those officials didn't adequately answer their questions about the matter.

Students, parents, teachers and school administrators must consider the virus as a serious health risk, said Paul Dunlap of Winston-Salem, a school-bus driver for nearly 19 years.

"I don't know why some people think that this is a joke," Dunlap said. "This isn't a joke." 

The district has 293 school-bus drivers and 58 openings for drivers, said Brent Campbell, a spokesman for the Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools.

"Bus drivers are an integral part of our operations," Campbell said. "We value their work and know they play a critical role in making sure our students have safe and reliable transportation to school."

School officials have worked with their COVID-19 transportation committee and conducted meetings, question-and-answer sessions and surveys to respond to the drivers' concerns and needs, Campbell said.

"Safety, training, retention, recruitment and the salary of bus drivers (have) been a primary focus of the district for quite some time," Campbell said.

About 2,500 kindergarten students returned to classrooms on Monday, the latest and biggest wave of students to move from online to in-person learning under the Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools' staggered reopening plan.

Their return comes as the number of COVID-19 cases in Forsyth County is rising, reflecting a national trend.

Teresa Gaither, a longtime staff member at Easton Elementary School, has died, and her colleagues said the cause was COVID-19.

The Forsyth County Department of Public Health reported 106 new cases of the coronavirus and eight deaths on Monday. 

Forsyth County had 178 new COVID-19 cases, a record daily high, reported on Thursday and Saturday by the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services. The overall Forsyth County count is 10,740 since mid-March and 141 people have died locally.

According to the schools' COVID-19 dashboard, there are 17 confirmed cases involving students, with 13 of them among high school students. These students are not in school buildings but are practicing sports. That data was posted on the dashboard on Friday afternoon.

There are also 30 confirmed cases involving staff members at the schools, and 127 staff members in quarantine. Of the 127 in quarantine, 86 are in elementary schools.

After a free-flowing discussion at Bolton Park, most drivers agreed that they want school officials to protect their health amid the pandemic. They also want hazard pay for driving school buses that might have infected children among their passengers.

At this time, school officials are not considering hazard pay for school-bus drivers, Campbell said.

"Our drivers have been given a standard set of PPE, which includes gloves, masks and face shields," Campbell said. "We have worked to label seats so students do not sit directly behind the driver, sit one to a seat, and spaced out.

"We have limited the number of students on the routes and followed all applicable guidance as recommended by (the) N.C. Department of Public Instruction and the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services and Strong Schools Toolkit."

The toolkit contains recommendations and procedures that state officials have developed to reduce the spread of COVID-19.

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The drivers want permanent raises rather than the 3% bonuses that the Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Board of Education provided them earlier this year.

The starting pay for drivers is $13.64 per hour, and the hourly rate varies with each driver's years of service, Campbell said. The hourly wage increases every school year, he said.

"The drivers' salary concerns are a part of the overall commitment by the district to continue improving salaries for classified employees," Campbell said. "The 3% bonus this year was an effort to show commitment to that cause as the district begins the upcoming budget process."

The drivers want thermometers placed on every bus so they can check the temperatures of their passengers, and they want plexiglass installed to separate the drivers' seats from the vehicle's passenger seats.

The state guidelines don't require temperature checks as students get on their buses, Campbell said.

However, the district has furnished bus assistants this week who have thermometers to use if necessary, Campbell said. The assistants accompany drives on their routes.

"If this option will help them (bus drivers) feel safe, we certainly want to accommodate it," Campbell said.

School buses are owned by the state of North Carolina and are not allowed to be retrofitted with plexiglass, Val Young, the president of the Forsyth County Association of Educators, told the bus drivers at their meeting.

Adding shields to school buses would require altering the bus drivers’ spaces and retrofitting the buses, a measure that that state department of public instruction must approve, Campbell said.

"At this time, (the) NCDPI has given no indication that (it) will allow bus shields," Campbell said. 

At their meeting, Young told the drivers that they could present their reasonable demands, which would provide them some protection from the virus, to school officials.

"Your life depends on it," Young said. "You are frontline workers. You have to look at it that way."

Donna Foster of Winston-Salem, a driver, suggested that at least 100 school-bus drivers either attend or call into the Nov. 17 meeting of the school board to present their concerns to the board members.

"School bus drivers' lives matter," another driver said.

If drivers have underlying medical conditions such as diabetes or high-blood pressure, and they don't want to drive a bus on a given day, they must present their supervisor doctor's notes to get an alternative assignment, Young said. Those guidelines are part of the Americans Disabilities Act, she said.

Some drivers said they were concerned that young children could be asymptomatic carriers of the virus, and asked Young what they could do if students didn't want to wear masks on their buses. Drivers are required to wear masks.

Young told the drivers that they were obligated to transport these children to and from their schools. Students are required to wear masks inside of their schools.

That dynamic could lead to the spread of COVID-19 among the drivers, which could result in a shutdown of the entire school system, some drivers said.

School officials have required social-distancing guidelines for the buses' passengers. The students must be separated from 6 feet to 12 feet in the buses, Young said.

However, a driver said that children are less than 12 inches away from drivers when the children walk up vehicles' steps and proceed to their seats.

The school-bus drivers demonstrated their commitment to their jobs by attending the meeting at Bolton Park, Young said.

"You don't want to die from this either," Young said.

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@jhintonWSJ

Journal reporters Lisa O'Donnell and Richard Craver contributed to this story.

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