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Harlow’s, which contracts school bus services for all Jefferson County schools except Cardwell,  is currently short on bus drivers for the fall. 

A month before classes begin, school administrators are facing challenges that, in any other year, would seem routine. How will kids pass safely in the corridors? Where and when will they eat lunch?   

Then, there’s the question of how students will get to school in the first place.

County school districts and transportation providers – like most across the nation – are wrestling with the distinctive geometry of school buses, the imperative to keep students at safe distances, the need to match up with changing class schedules, and the uncertain availability of state funding to cover new expenses.

“Everything is a work in progress,” said Sarah Eyer, the interim county schools superintendent, who is responsible for organizing discussion of bus transportation across the county’s districts. “The risks are high here, we understand that. It’s no small thing.”

In May, the Centers for Disease Control issued preliminary guidance for school transportation. Its recommendation: Passengers should sit one to a seat, every other row. That calculus implied that just 14 students could fit on an 83-passenger bus, or 11 on a 72-passenger bus. 

The National Council on School Facilities and Cooperative Strategies has offered more generous estimates: If all kids wear masks, it says, bus operators can safely operate at 50% of capacity.

But that’s still just 50%, leaving school administrators to figure out how they’ll get everyone to class on time, and how much that will cost. Montana’s Office of Public Instruction, which determines policy for the state’s public education, has advised, “Schools should consider the need for more buses or alternative schedules to safely transport students.

For Jefferson High School, that may mean making two trips on routes that won’t fit into a single, capacity-limited bus, as well as staggered start times, said superintendent Tim Norbeck. The school, like others, also is trying to gauge how many students will opt out of in-school instruction, which would reduce the number needing transport.

“It’s a huge moving target,” Norbeck said.

Montana City School plans to run its three routes as usual. It is encouraging parents who can to drive their kids to school; Superintendent Tony Kloker expects to learn by Friday how many families will do so. He said he expects that that reduction, as well as sitting family members together, will allow buses to stay within the 50% capacity threshold. How additional trips will be funded isn’t yet clear. 

On July 17, Governor Steve Bullock announced that $75 million would be directed from the Coronavirus Relief Fund to state public schools to cover expenses related to COVID-19. That total includes $10 million earmarked for incremental transportation costs. 

But while school superintendents were invited July 24 to apply for funding from the $65 million for general expenses, the transportation fund remains in some limbo: A spokesperson for Bullock said that the governor’s budget staff hadn’t yet decided on the funding mechanism.

And one more challenge: Eyer said that Harlow’s, the regional company that provides school transportation service under contract to every county district except Cardwell, is short drivers – yet another local manifestation of a national trend. 

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