Bringing Back School Buses After The Shelter In Place

It has been a guessing game in many states as to how the 2020-2021 school year is going to start at the end of this summer.  While many are focused on how to physically distance the classrooms, handle lunches, run physical education classes, and keep classrooms disinfected, there is another area that needs to be addressed well before teachers and students return to the school grounds. 

Many school districts parked their buses in their transportation department parking lots back in the middle of March when shelter in place orders went into effect.   They have now been sitting for longer than they would during a typical summer break – and many schools use their buses during the summer to transport students involved in extended school year programs.  Long term non-use of the school vehicles can cause many different problems when they are brought back into usage. 

“Buses are vehicles. Vehicles aren’t meant to sit, they are meant to move.”

– Mike Werner, Director of Fleet Maintenance for Cobb County schools during a recent podcast.

This means that while the administration and faculty are determining the best way to address the return to school guidance provided by the state, the transportation staff needs to be assessing the mechanical status of their bus fleet and preparing them for whatever the upcoming school year may bring. 

Keep in mind that if schools are running split sessions on a daily basis, the amount of mileage and general wear and tear on the fleet of buses will be double.  This may also cause a change to maintenance intervals when compared to a typical school year. 

Transportation directors and their mechanics/maintenance staff should look at starting their bus evaluation program earlier than they may typically start during a normal summer.  They need to plan to address issues of logistics for personnel, bus inspections and maintenance, and plan for issues related to cleaning and disinfecting vehicles.

Guidelines for the logistics of keeping your transportation staff healthy include:

  • Determine whether changes need to be made in scheduling your mechanics to allow them to practice appropriate physical distancing (keeping in mind that this is not always possible when performing tasks that require two people to perform).
  • If you have more than one shift of mechanics, build a 15 minute “break” into the end of each shift for mechanics to write notes about vehicles that are being repaired rather than having them verbally update the second shift.
  • If there is a shared breakroom for mechanics and drivers, separate the room into individual areas to reduce mixing of mechanics and drivers.  Reduce the number of chairs and tables as appropriate to encourage physical distancing.  Try to encourage one way use of entrances when possible – create a “one way traffic flow”.
  • Plan for appropriate pre-screening procedures based on established public heath guidelines for your region.  If temperature checks are required, make sure that this is built into the plan for someone to be available to screen bus drivers before their shifts and that they are aware of the time that the drivers will need to be screened.
  • Determine how the vehicle maintenance schedules will need to be adjusted for vehicle inspections and required maintenance based on updated school schedules.
  • Determine how changes in usage and schedules will impact onsite parts inventories.
  • Plan now for the possibility that as buses are put back into operation that there may be shortages of required parts due to the fact that buses have sat for extended periods through out the country.

Vehicles that have been sitting for the last several months will need:

  • A solid review of the electrical and mechanical systems by your maintenance staff which should include a test ride with a duration of 20-25 minutes for each vehicle which will allow the mechanics to complete an “eyes and ears” inspection in addition to checking fluid levels and voltage levels.
  • A check of the engine bay for evidence of animal infestation as well as checking wiring throughout the vehicle for damage by mice or other rodents.
  • A check of not only the visual condition of the tires but ensuring that there is still a good seal.
  • A check of the charging system as well as checking the batteries for damage due to parasitic discharge.
  • After the vehicle has been taken for a test drive, it should be checked for fluid leaks due to seals that may have dried out during the last several months.
  • Parts such as wiper blades may have dried out over the last several months
  • Check emergency buzzer switches as well as other switches that may have contacts that have failed over time. 
  • Lightbulbs (both interior and exterior) may need increased replacement.
  • Plan for having your mechanics and/or drivers routinely drive the vehicles after they are inspected until school restarts so that seals do not dry out and any problems can be addressed.  Do not let them sit after they have been inspected.  Establish a set driving route so that all vehicles are getting the same amount of operational time – approximately 20-25 minutes.

Cleaning and disinfecting of buses will need to be readdressed:

  • Communicate with your school community (teachers, students, families) about how you are cleaning and disinfecting the vehicles in terms of schedule as well as the agents used so that they are more comfortable with the process.
  • Remember that different surfaces react differently to each type of disinfectant.  The strongest chemical may not be the best for every situation.
  • Using the wrong chemical solution on instrument gauge clusters can cause the lens over the cluster to fog up.
  • Using bleach on seatbelts will shorten the safety lifespan of seatbelts by breaking down the fibers of the seatbelt.  The damage may not be visible but it can decrease the strength of the fibers. 
  • Make sure that there is adequate ventilation when cleaning and disinfecting – for the cleaners on the bus as well as the mechanics if the bus is being cleaned and disinfected indoors.
  • Clean bus floors first so that dirt and dust on the floor is not spread into the air as the cleaning staff moves about the bus.
  • Remember that cleaning and disinfecting a school bus is a four step process:
    • Clean – cleaning helps to remove the dirt and residue that can hide pathogens (bacteria, viruses, etc.)
    • Disinfect – Disinfectants are used to either kill/deactivate or disrupt the reproductive cycle of any pathogens that are left after the cleaning phase.  Please note that each disinfectant agent has a specified dwell time (time that the surface is wet with the agent) for each type of pathogen.  Information can be obtained by the manufacturer or if being used for disinfecting surfaces for coronavirus prevention on the EPA’s List N.
    • Rinse – The rinse phases is important as it helps to remove any chemical residues from the cleaning and disinfecting phases that may cause irritation to drivers and/or students who ride the bus.
    • Dry – Dry the surfaces that have been cleaned, disinfected, and rinsed.

Returning students to school is going to be a big project for all stakeholders. Transportation of the students is just one part and this post has been a small discussion of some of the issues that will need to be addressed by district personnel that are tasked with transportation issues. Transportation of students is a difficult situation in the best of times with issues of budgets, driver shortages, and scheduling. Over the next couple of weeks, we will provide additional posts to help identify areas that may help in terms of getting school transportation back up to speed safely.

What Infection Control Practices Will Come To Your Workplace?

The Smithfield plant in Sioux Falls, South Dakota is the largest current coronavirus hotspot in the United States (over 600 positive cases related to the plant as of today). When states reopen for business, there are going to need to be changes in how businesses operate in terms of physical distancing of employees. Gov. Murphy of NJ is already talking about restaurants operating at about 50% capacity to provide physical distancing of customers and employees (along with employees wearing masks).  Many stores have gone to special hours to protect their customers who are at greatest risk.

cvs at risk customers

PPE (masks, etc.) are typically considered by safety professionals as a line of last defense in protecting an individual after exhausting the usage of elimination and substitution.

ppe pyramidElimination involves whether a task has to be done – can the task step be eliminated?  That may be no longer performing a task onsite by getting a completed component from another vendor or eliminating areas of the production floor where people may congregate with no value added function.   Substitution looks at whether a different process can be used to make the same process safer.  Both of these are effective but may take more time to implement – and in the current situation may be difficult with reduced supply chains both nationally and internationally.

Companies will need to look at engineering controls such as physical distancing, protective barriers (such as the plexiglass shields now being used to protect retail cashiers in food stores) and administrative controls such as altering production rates, staggering shifts to reduce employees onsite at a given time, and temperature check points before entering a job site. Both engineering and administrative controls will be impacted by ability to decontaminate areas between shifts.   Companies will need to incorporate a combination of these controls.

In practical application, medical offices and personal care offices will need to look at changing how some services are performed (telemedicine becomes a great tool for both substitution and elimination controls – does the person need to be seen or can they be treated by telemedicine) as well as administrative and engineering controls (spacing out appointments, having people wait in cars or changing the waiting areas to increase personal distancing).

There will be a new normal when people return to business. It remains to be seen what that new normal will be for each business.    What do you think will be changed at your work site?