PORTAGE, Mich. — Once every two years, Kathy Adkins and other bus drivers in the area head to the Kalamazoo Regional Educational Service Agency on Milham Avenue to have their health cards renewed for their state licensing. There, they talk about health and safety issues, including fire evacuations and what to do when someone doesn’t belong on the bus.
This year, the talks were centered more on the coronavirus and safety concerns that the Portage Public Schools Bus Drivers Association has, Adkins said.
It's issues the union, which Adkins is president of, has brought up to the school district, she said. And, right now the union is feeling uneasy about returning to work.
“We love the kids. We’re really interested in their safety,” said Adkins during an interview with FOX 17 on Tuesday. “We want to make sure that it’s a good school year for everybody.”
Adkins said they’ve been meeting with the Portage Public Schools administration, discussing their concerns, including the number of students allowed on their buses.
“Yesterday we were told that the buses will be full capacity,” Adkins said. “Of course when there’s full capacity there’s no social distancing. Some of the buses do have a small amount of riders. But, some have 50-60 children.”
She said the union is fearful that the students could spread the coronavirus to one another and to the drivers. Additionally they’re not doing temperature checks before they get on the bus.
“It feels really scary,” Adkins said. “A lot of the drivers, as I said before, are older. They have significant others at home that they’re afraid they’ll take the sickness home too.”
So, some have chosen not to drive anymore or go on leave until the virus is better contained at the school and in the country, she said.
“One of the big things for the drivers is we do not feel we have enough personal protective equipment or PPE. We’re given a package of five KN95 masks and told that we’re going to use those for 10 days. Well, that’s not 10 uses for us. That’s 20 or 30 uses for us because we drive two times or, some of the drivers, three times a day,” Adkins said. “So we been trying to work on these things with the school but as of this time we have not come to an agreement with them.”
Portage Public Schools Superintendent Mark Beilang said they’ve been listening and are open to suggestions. However a plan is in place.
So far, hand sanitizers have been installed on buses for students to use while getting on and off the buses, he said. And, in addition to the KN95 masks, all drivers were given gloves and upon request, face shields.
“Initially we’re leaving at least the first seat behind the driver vacant. We’ll be loading our buses from the back to the front and unloading the same way. We won’t let any students on board without wearing face masks,” Beilang said in a phone interview Tuesday afternoon. “Right now we don’t have a clear understanding of how many students will be actually riding our buses you know as the school year starts.”
Beilang said a while ago the district reached out to parents about how many will allow their students to ride buses this year. In the end, school officials tallied that 1,000 students may take the bus this year, riding to and from one of their 14 buildings and schools .
However, they’d like to see how that looks over the first few days of school before making any changes, he said.
“We want to make adjustments so that we balance our bus riders out on the buses that we have. So if we find that a bus has a lot of students on it, and I don’t know what a lot is because it depends on elementary or secondary runs, we’ll adjust our runs to try to balance our loads across our bus fleet. So we again, we won’t know that until after we see what the demands are for that service.”
Beilang added that the district just renewed their Collective Bargaining Agreement with the union. They’re open to further discussions for as long as needed.
Adkins said the next formal meeting is on Friday. She hopes something will get worked out then.
School begins on Monday August 31.
“It’s not just totally us. We want them to be happy with what we’re doing,” Adkins said. “But we also want to make sure that we feel safe in our jobs, which is pretty much what everybody wants.”