LOUISVILLE, Ky — R.W. Fawbush can’t wait to be back driving his bus, with students, on their way to school.
"I’ve been missing the students," he said from the seat of his empty yellow International. "That’s one of the things that allows my job to be more fun and, not only that, more rewarding, when you get a chance to relate with the students."
All Jefferson County Public Schools staff are getting vaccinated. That’s especially important as buses could be full when school resumes – per education department guidelines. Superintendent Dr. Marty Pollio addressed this at a January 19th school board meeting.
"As long as students have the masks on, it doesn’t have to be the very limited number of students on the bus," he said during the Zoom meeting. Pollio also said, as of right now, 40% of students want to keep learning remotely, according to a survey answered by families.
"So, we will have approximately 40% less students on buses as a result of the students that are remaining virtual," he stated.
On Wednesday, new CDC Director Dr. Rocehelle Walenski surprised many when she said schools could not only reopen in the very near future, but that teachers did not necessarily need to be vaccinated before those steps could be taken.
"There is increasing data to suggest that schools can safely reopen," she said, as part of her statements during the press briefing. White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki later walked back Walenski's statement on teacher vaccination needs.
School classrooms may indeed be relatively safer than most other indoor gatherings during the pandemic, but buses are a completely different setting. Are bus drivers concerned for their health in this confined space, with capacity unlimited?
"Actually, I’m not," said Fawbush. "Because we’re going through the shots, COVID testing, and being really watchful for that – the COVID testing and things like this – I think we’re gonna be OK."
Fawbush has been cleaning school buildings while his driving skills go largely unused. Fellow driver Lanitra Wilson revived old talents to work in accounts payable in one of the district's offices.
"I’m eager to get back to my children on the bus," she said. "I miss my babies."
On the other side of the same multipurpose building where Wilson has been typing away, Diana Burrus loves her new role in the district's IT department. She drives to schools in the sprawling county and picks up piles of damaged Chromebook laptops - the famous (or infamous) computers issued to tens of thousands of students over the past year to help complete "nontraditional instruction" online.
"I miss driving the bus but, with the pandemic going on, I’d prefer just stay where I’m at until it’s safe," Burrus said, as she gave us a tour of her massive warehouse workspace. She said she has a health condition that prevents her from receiving a coronavirus vaccine.
It is unclear how many drivers share Burruses' aprehension to return behind the wheel. JCPS can hardly afford to lose drivers to other departments. District spokesperson Mark Hebert told Spectrum News they began last year with close to 900 drivers. He said a hiring spree will be underway ahead of a return to in-person classes, as many veteran drivers used the pandemic as an opportunity to retire.
Bus union leadership posted online that 175 drivers were needed as of late January.
On Friday, Pollio stood in front of the city's largest vaccination site at the Kentucky Expo Center. He announced 507 district staff members remained to be vaccinated. He said the vaccination effort was an awesome accomplishment by the health department and 2,000 volunteers who have been donating time and talent.
As teachers and parents inch closer to returning children to classrooms, their safety may depend on what happens before they reach the front door.