Wausau School District plans and payment for busing changes during pandemic

Published: Sep. 10, 2020 at 8:03 PM CDT
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WAUSAU, Wis. (WSAW) - The Wausau School District has the majority of students attending schools virtually, with the exception of some hubs, which means buses are not running like they typically do.

The district signed a five-year contract with First Student in July of 2019. In April this year, the school board approved a motion to modify the contract to address the 51 days buses did not get to run at the end of the spring semester and to adjust for uncertainties with functioning a school in a pandemic. The amendment was signed in June.

The board agreed to pay First Student $15,000 per day for the 19 school days between March 16 and April 17 where it could not bus students due to the pandemic. It also agreed to pay a flat rate of $10,000 per day for days the district cancels busing, which included the rest of the 2020 spring semester and applies for future school days. Bob Tess, the chief finance and business services officer with the district said the typical daily costs to run buses without any things like extra curricular runs or field trips is about $18,000 per day. In the past, snow days were typically the only days busing would get canceled and the bus company would incur that cost.

“We needed to assure that First Student can keep the doors open, keep the buses running for when we do come back, we need to have a bus company that we can depend on,” he stated.

That is one reason why the costs changed. Tess explained the federal government also required them to keep their staff and their contractors for the district employed in order to receive CARES Act dollars, as well. He said the amendment with First Student also allowed the district to extend the contract another year.

Since the pandemic hit, First Student’s revenue is down about 50%. The district is still paying for busing for the private schools that are in session in person and for some of the student hubs. The $10,000 the district is paying allows the bus company to keep up with some of its fixed costs so it can be ready for when bus doors open back up for the public schools.

The Wausau School Board is scheduled to meet Monday and will make its first review of the back to school plan since school started in the district this week. Should the board vote to move from the virtual model, Plan C, to the hybrid model, Plan B, Tess said their work this summer and with the bus company will allow them to be ready.

Plan B would invite half of the students back to school every other week, such as students with the last names A-L one week in-person and M-Z virtually, and vise versa the next week.

“Under such a plan, half of the students would be invited to school on any given day. Of that half, some parents might elect to go virtual. Also of that half, some families might choose not to take advantage of the busing that they’re being offered. So, we’re expecting about a third of our capacity being on any bus,” Tess explained.

However, should the board vote to implement that plan, it would not be able to begin for another two weeks so that buses could run their routes before students get on the bus.

“This summer, we’ve taken painstaking efforts to route our students very carefully," Andrew Edwards, the First Student Wausau location manager said. "We’ve also, with our school district partner, have implemented COVID mitigation strategies and developed best and most effective way forward.”

That includes reducing bus capacity to 50% or less, marking seats on buses where students cannot sit so they can distance students, requiring students to wear masks, and disinfecting the full bus monthly and high touch surfaces daily.

Edwards said despite the pandemic hitting their prime bus driver recruitment season, they are sitting about even in terms of the number of drivers they have, though they have some open positions and encourage people to apply. He said because the student population physically going to school at any given time if the district switches to a hybrid model, the routes buses will run will be almost normal, they will just be picking up fewer students. That means they will not need to greatly extend their pick up and drop off times or increase the number of buses they have running to get students to and from school.

If the district switches to that hybrid plan, the district will also need to kick in the Metro Express Ride routes that assist the district in getting secondary level kids to and from school. Greg Seubert, Wausau’s transit director said they still have a lot to figure out in terms of how that would work.

“We’ve talked about what the barriers are, but we haven’t found solutions at this point,” he said.

“We might have to make multiple runs. We might have to pitch in with yellow buses where Metro Ride can’t pick up all of the students,” Tess said. “And that’s a concern for our secondary students.”

The district often purchases tickets for students or reimburses them if they take Metro Ride instead of the school bus system as part of their busing costs. The district’s general fund is about $105 million and busing both through First Student and Metro Ride makes up about $3.2 million of that budget.

Seubert explained capacity is the first issue. Metro Ride has limited their capacity to 10 riders for its buses that normally seat about 30 so they can implement social distancing. That means the number of buses it would take to get the number of students they typically bus during the school year would be significant or it would take buses longer to pick up and drop off students as they make multiple trips.

Metro Ride typically has 2,000 riders a day, this includes students and the general public. Students make up about 50% of their riders annually. He said in general they have seen a reduction in the number of riders due to events largely not happening and businesses not open in the ways they used to be.

The second important piece, he stated, is having enough staff to keep up with the additional cleaning and disinfecting of the buses should all 20 buses go back in service. They have added safety measures, like disinfecting buses daily and ordering plexiglass to be placed around their driver.

The staff that would typically drive the Express routes have become part of the team that helps disinfect the buses. They recently purchased disinfecting sprayers which Seubert said have dramatically cut down on the amount of time that disinfecting takes.

“That’s important because if we’re going to put our Express services back on the street, we’ll have more than twice as many vehicles that we need to sanitize every day,” he said.

The third piece is the mask requirement.

“We’ve not felt like we’ve had the authority to enforce a mandate on our own and so, frankly, we’ve been relieved that the governor implemented a mask mandate so that we can keep our passengers safe,” he explained.

They offer free masks on buses, but the current statewide mask mandate expires in less than a month.

Tess said the school board will ultimately make the decision as to whether they continue students, staff, and visitors to wear masks in school should the mandate expire and what is decided in the schools will be required for the buses.

Next week Thursday, the transit commission will meet to go over Metro Ride’s COVID-19 procedures and also discuss capacity.

“The question that I have for them is, are there policies, procedures, equipment that will allow us to exceed the current capacity constraints," he asked.

Seubert said he does not expect necessarily a firm answer, but a lively discussion. What is discussed and decided at the Wausau School Board meeting will also influence discussion at the transit commission meeting.

Copyright 2020 WSAW. All rights reserved.

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