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Getting Students Back To School During COVID-19

As originally published in School Transportation News

By: Ned Einstein
Tel: 212-766-1121
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Because of social distancing, classrooms and schoolbuses can only be filled to one-fourth of their capacities. This constraint alone requires that a broad range of dramatic changes be made in order for our children to return to physical school without placing out entire population at greater risk than we already are. Using the key points below, state educational and transportation officials can tweak this model into a formal, detailed plan, and hand it to their respective governors. With such plans implemented, students in many or most states should be able to return to Zoom school this September, and attend school, physically, three days a week, beginning this coming March. From this article’s publication, will be have five months to prepare. And changing the school year to March through November will permit most classes (even in northern states) to be held outdoors, where the virus’ spread is significantly weaker.

The steps outlined below are not a menu. Every single element must be accomplished to have a realistic chance of success. The pace of the pandemic’s growth is still accelerating, and may soon become irreversible, with a level of carnage that would have been inconceivable even six months ago. With 68,000-plus new cases on July 31st, and increasing most days, we may reach 100,000 a day by Sept. 1st, and 140,000 a day by Nov. 3rd.. Sustained at even this level means 50M cases a year. Things change constantly in different places, at different times:

  • As of August 12th, the number of cases, worldwide, had doubled in the past six weeks.
  • Someone in China who had recovered from COVID-19 in mid-July got re-infected five weeks later.
  • On September 1, 2020, the Administration chose to ignore and abandon the World Health Organization – betting we can develop a vaccine alone, and first.

Unless we are naïve, some form of the model presented here must work. If history is any lesson, the magic vaccine will not come along for years. Even if it does, COVID-19 may morph into something different, and possibly worse, in response. So even if the magic vaccine materializes and becomes widely available, we should still perform the steps outlined below. Without a model like that proposed here, we are taking a dangerous risk.

How we got is important to understand if we are to succeed.  Our plight is not simply the result of failed leadership. That is merely the frosting on a collapsing cake. Three themes began to set us up for our failure roughly 40 years ago:

  1. The maldistribution of wealth (the MOW) began in 1981 with the regressive tax structure of former President Reagan.

  2. The U.S. Jobs Elimination Program (the JEP) began as a response to the energy crisis of 1973, when pump jockeys in 49 states almost immediately lost their jobs (New Jersey still requires them).

  3. And the lack of competition (the LOC) began roughly 30 years ago when we began to flagrantly ignore anti-trust violations

Beyond creating leviathans like Google, Microsoft, Apple, QuickBooks and Amazon, which own us, these themes were the reason we had no tests, no masks, no PPE, no contact tracing, no ventilators, insufficient hospital capacity and too few healthcare workers when the Plague arrived on our doorstep. With no remote ability to confront a phenomenon of this type and size, it overwhelmed us.

Failed leadership obviously made the consequences of these themes worse. But it is critical that we understand that this leadership was not the cause, even while it exaggerated the JEP, the MOW and the LOC these past four years. Our deliberate inability to produce anything close to the needed quantity of these supplies only exaggerated the impact of these themes on our lives, and illustrates why those measures we do take continue to fail. Dwelling on these failures may be interesting. But we have no reasonable choice but to move forward despite them.

The Structure of School and Transportation

Obesity and other health problems notwithstanding, large numbers of children do not get terribly ill, or noticeably ill, from COVID-19. More recent testing and studies have found this observation less true. But illness severity and infection rates are two completely different things. A mid-July testing exercise in Georgia found 31% of school age children infected. In late August, 79% of all those tested in Wisconsin tested positive. Even while an early NYTimes study found that that children between age 1 and 18 die from Covid at the rate of only .64 per 100,000, the claim that children are “virus stoppers” is a dangerous delusion. Another recent study found that children are 100 times more likely to have COVID-19 infections in their noses and throats than a typical adult. While children die far less often from COVID-19 than do older adults, children carry it home to their families and friends, and they all spread it to still others. The measures outlined below can at least stop infections from spreading further at school and on the bus.

To accomplish these two goals, we must fill each classroom and each school bus with only one-fourth the normal number of students. This distribution translates into holding two full schooldays per day, six days a week. Every student can attend school physically three days a week, and attend “virtually” (via Zoom, etc.) the other three days – both during either a long morning or long afternoon “school day session”. With two school day sessions per day, and students attending one full-day session live only three days a week, class sizes will be half as large as normal. And only half of those students will be physically present. So teachers will be able to instruct both live and Zoom students simultaneously. Because the Zoom students do not have to socially distance, only the handful of students physical present must space themselves far enough apart in a conventional classroom even indoors.  Plus every teacher will have a teacher’s aide. The math works. But teachers, aides, drivers and other non-students – all older -- must dress practically like astronauts. And students must mask up, space themselves apart and undergo a level of sustained discipline they have never experienced.

Half the students can travel to physical school either Monday, Wednesday and Friday or Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday. Or they can travel Monday through Wednesday, or Thursday through Saturday -- the two simplest models.  The latter model should provide more flexibility to working parents – assuming their employers make reasonable adjustments.

To keep costs under control, and stuck with a bus fleet that cannot realistically expand, the transportation community must deliver service to its schools in three “tiers,” as efficiently as reasonably possible. Because the number of students transported on any run will be one-fourth the normal number (less for those buses not filled to capacity during the old normal),  the “morning session” school hours would look something like this:

  • High School:               6 a.m. to 12:45 p.m.
  • Middle School:           7 a.m. to noon
  • Elementary School:      8 to 11:00 a.m.

The afternoon session’s hours would resemble this pattern:

  • High School:               1:15 to 8 p.m.
  • Middle School:            2 to 7 p.m.
  • Elementary School:     3 to 6 p.m.

Under this model, time will be needed to provide the trips in each tier, and to deadhead from the end of one tier to the beginning of the next one. And some time will be needed from the last high school drop-off of the morning session for the driver to deadhead to the first high school pick-up of the afternoon session. This schedule will be exhausting for high school teachers, even though there are ways to shorten their school days (see discussion below). But we will need two shifts of schoolbus drivers: The safety risks of an 80-hour week is unacceptable, if not outright illegal under state and federal laws and regulations. Fortunately, the five-month implementation period will provide ample time to recruit, hire and train these additional drives. Our extraordinary current national unemployment rate will make their engagement as full-time drivers possible, even at the low wages they had been earning, mostly as part-time drivers, during our industry’s decades-long drivers’ shortage. And these five months will give us more time to acquire the number of testing kits, processing chemicals and skills to conduct them needed.

A number of factors may cushion the impacts of this model for high school teachers. For example, teachers’ aides could conduct physical education and study hall during the first two classes of the morning session and the last two classes of the afternoon session – shortening the otherwise 14-hour school day to 10 to 11 hours. Teachers could grab a short nap between the two sessions. And teachers’ aides could perform grading, enforce discipline, communicate with parents, and conduct many administrative tasks. Plus, occasional relief could be provided by substitute teachers – even better if provided by experienced retired teachers. Most importantly, class size will be half of normal (with only half of the students  physically present at any given time).

Many teachers have low opinions of teachers’ aides. But our enormous unemployment rate could improve their quality significantly. These roughly 3.2 million additional positions could include a valuable array of skills, including computer assistance to both students and teachers and “second language assistance.” These aides could provide additional help to students falling behind – including “after-school” tutoring. Their presence should also help “close the gap” between the best (or most privileged) and worst (or least privileged) students. With the flexibility of rotating classes and aides at the middle and high school levels, these benefits would be even greater.

Certain spatial adjustments could also decrease tier-oriented travel times, and decrease the length of the school day (as well as drivers’ shifts and mileage-related costs). While it is unrealistic to change the location of schools, this would be less of a constraint now as most classes would be held outdoors. Otherwise, the storage locations of the buses could be relocated, greatly lowering operating and maintenance costs by reducing deadhead time and mileage. Park-outs (which I generally do not favor) could further decrease deadhead mileage and shift lengths, and their costs.

Examples I presented in the May, 2014, September, 2014 and September, 2015 issues of School Bus Fleet illustrated exampled where roughly 40 percent waste accrued to systems which failed to do some of the most basic things. If school ever returns to normal, continuing the practices outlined in this plan could cut transportation operating costs dramatically – in some case, easily in half.  Optimizing the adjustments cited in this model would teach us how. These savings could effectively repay the treasury for the investments needed now.

Doubling the number of schoolbus drivers would also create another half-million jobs. And another million jobs would be created by the attendants all buses will realistically need to keep the students masked and socially-distanced. Particularly stringent passenger management would be needed for K-5 students.  In the process, the attendants would be able to cross all the students at bus stops – almost completely eliminating the industry’s major former safety problem. California and Rhode Island employ this approach now.

Because the virus spreads far less outdoors, physical school must be held largely outdoors – although considerations must be made for tornadoes, hurricanes, floods and even less traumatic inclement weather.  To accommodate this change, the school year must necessarily change to March through November, largely to accommodate schools in the colder, northern states.   But southern states with warm weather year-round must also change their school years to make school less disruptive from state to state. In the northern states, special accommodations must be made for those cold months at the start and end of this new school year (March and April, and October and November), when it is too cold to hold school outdoors.

At worse, students in northern states may have to attend school only by Zoom during the cold months. More likely, they could make short, seasonal use of the large facilities they would otherwise use on rain and snow days, or spread out in larger, well-ventilated classrooms. The much-smaller class sizes of this model – half the class size, and have of those attending by Zoom – will allow social distancing within most traditional classrooms. This may be the best some schools can do during the cold months. But even if additional months of Zoom school were required for the cold months, the learning deficiencies would be offset by smaller class sizes, six days a week of school, and the addition of teachers’ aides. To place such alternatives in perspective, a city like Oslo experiences six weeks of complete darkness in the winter. Finland, all of which lies north of Oslo (with even more weeks of complete darkness), has the world’s finest school system; its school days last only four hours. Neither country has experienced problems with COVID-19 remotely like the U.S. has.  Particularly with education, quality generally trumps quantity. With improvements in both, the trio of benefits cited above should give American students a huge educational boost.

Health, Diet and Exercise

As we have quickly learned, Southeast Asians are infected by, and die from, COVID-19 at exponentially lower rates than U.S. residents. This is largely the result of far better health, mostly from a far better diet. The typical Asian diet is rice-based (gluten-free). Asians consume few dairy products (and little or no cheese). They eat little frozen food (packed with salt). They eat far less fast food. Food is more often steamed than fried. And most meals consist mostly of vegetables, rice, juice and tea. Where meat is consumed, it is most often fish, which is more easily digestible and has less saturated fat. Most importantly, Asians consume little sugar (and far less high fructose corn syrup). So even apart from exponentially more testing and exhaustive contact tracing, the relationship between health and infection and death rates cannot be disregarded. On July 31, 2020, Vietnam (a nation of 97 million people) experienced its first Covid-19 death. On the same date, the U.S. had experienced nearly 150,000.

Largely as a consequence of their diet, few Asians are obese (this has changed a bit in the past few decades with the introduction of fast food and soda). Scientists have found that those with a BMI [body mass indicator] of 35 to 40  have a 40 percent greater risk of dying from COVID-19. Those with a BMI greater than 40 have a 90 percent greater risk of dying from it. Being mildly obese makes it five times more likely that catching COVID will land one in an ICU. While plagues used to have a slimming effect on people, the quarantines associated with COVID-19 have actually made us fatter – and even more vulnerable.
It is not a coincidence that the countries with the lowest levels of obesity have had the fewest COVID deaths: China’s obesity rate is 6 percent it is 42 percent in the U.S. And the Chinese eat bats, Koreans eat dogs, and Vietnamese eat ground-up rhino horns. So a major thing one can do to improve the chances of not getting infected by, or dying from, COVID-19 is to be in better general health. A major key element of that health is an improved diet. It is particularly important to get healthy food into poor neighborhoods.

We can at least partly control the school component of these diets (particularly if we can provide two of each student’s three basic meals in school on the three days per week he or she physically attends school). We cannot fully adopt an Asian diet, particularly as children need milk for proper growth. But at the high school levels, whole milk can be replaced by low-fat milk or, where affordable, by nut- or oat-based non-dairy milk. Butter can be replaced by olive oil based substitutes. Sugar can be replaced by Stevia. And we can cut down on sandwiches and burgers. It will certainly be more difficult and costly to sustain these improvements outside of school. But these challenges can be met, for school meals, with a moderate amount of additional funding, since we are already providing breakfast and lunch to large numbers of students.

Also, our failure to police children from smoking and, more recently, vaping, must stop. We simply cannot allow students with such habits to attend physical school during a respiratory pandemic.

It is also important that our commercial drivers’ health improves radically. Largely because of their high percentage of obesity, roughly half of all American bus and truck drivers possess Obstructive Sleep Apnea. It makes little sense to go to such great extents and costs to protect our students from COVID-19 only to see small busfulls killed and injured when their drivers fall asleep at the wheel.

Finally, the nature and frequency of physical education must change. To survive the pandemic, and return to “metabolic health,” we need a 45-minute (minimum) session of President Kennedy era physical fitness exercise every day, either face-to-face or by Zoom. No more tag, dodgeball, softball or other “play periods.” Instead, jumping jacks, sit-ups, push-ups, and lots of jogging, wind sprints and running-in-place. As long as we have COVID-19, gym class may not be much fun. Too bad. Our goal now is not to have fun. It is to survive.

There is reasonable hope that the health improvements needed can be achieved. According to one highly-respected nutritional expert, Dr. Darius Mozzaffarian of the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University, only 12 percent of all Americans are “metabolically healthy” – an envelope defined, narrowly, by a normal waist circumference, normal levels of cholesterol and glucose, and normal levels of hypertension. But Dr. Mozzaffarian claims that, with the right choices and effort, those not abnormally obese or otherwise ill can return to metabolic health in six weeks. Of course, there are realistic limits to how healthy many students with disabilities can become, especially those with physical problems which affect their diets and abilities to exercise, such as those morbidly obese and many special education students. But special ed students are the most vulnerable, and require physical school the most. We must meet this difficult challenge.

More challenging is the fact that so many families cannot afford healthy food. Growing numbers cannot afford any food. While not transportation or educational issues, these problems must be addressed for this model to succeed. Clearly, there are significant economic barriers to this challenge, particularly given the poverty of our pre-pandemic population. Now, with the widespread collapse of our economy (including tens of millions unemployed) and the threat of eviction for tens of millions of families, the economic constraints for returning students to good health are even more daunting. Schools must necessarily play a greater role in student health than ever before. And our educators much play an increased role in conveying the importance of improved health among the general population. Without these improvements, the other accomplishments of this model lie at great risk, and the effort could collapse.

Sleep, System Design and Routing

Numerous medical experts feel that the quality, duration and times of one’s sleep are even more important than his or her nutrition.

Most individuals’ sleep/wakefulness cycles tend to fall into two patterns: Those whose natural sleep/wakefulness cycles are shorter than one rotation of the planet on its axis (i.e., 24 hours), and those whose natural cycles are longer. But the late sleepers (who often have longer than 24-hour natural sleep/wakefulness cycles) cannot realistically arise early enough to attend early morning school sessions, either physically or by Zoom. If they can even remain awake, many will be too dopey to learn anything. A huge number of any nation’s population are unavoidably “owls.” Nothing but serious evening drugs (i.e., sleeping pills) and morning drugs (e.g., caffeine) can change this. But such “solutions” are accompanied by dangerous, often life-long consequences. They are not viable solutions for children.

As a result of sleep/wakefulness cycles, we cannot simply divide a school’s service area into four quadrants and serve all students in each quadrant one morning or afternoon every two days (or three consecutive mornings or afternoons a week). Routing (mostly related to morning sessions) must accommodate a large number of exceptions. As this single variable illustrates, the elements of a successful plan are not a menu. They must all be addressed. And all the pieces must fit together. Changed in employment among parents necessarily compound the challenge to routing which sleep/wakefulness cycles present.

Testing and Diagnosis

COVID-19 testing and the timely production of test results are the weak links in this model – just as they have been the weak link in our nation’s failure to cope with the pandemic in general. We learned this the moment COVID-19 was first acknowledged here: Not enough nasal swabs for the paucity of tests we could even administer. While we ignored the initial incidents of COVID-19, China conducted 6.5 million tests in Wuhan Province in five days. Our administration has deliberated reduced testing because it reveals more infections. Such approaches cannot continue if we expect our students to return safely to physical school, much less accomplish other COVID-19-related goals.

The fact that two oligopolies (Quest Diagnostics and LabCorp) and 10 other giants dominate the testing and diagnostic market helps to explain our testing and test-result impotence – yet another consequence of the LOC. Yet we have thousands of universities, colleges and junior colleges that can analyze and produce moderate numbers of test results in a few hours when given the resources and tools with which to do so (witness the NBA). With similar tools, and minimal instruction, there is no reason bright high school students cannot perform similar tasks in science class. At some point, daily testing of students physically attending school may be achievable – enhancing their safety, and further strengthening the bridge to rehabilitating our entire nation and its economy.

Tying the need for testing to the success of any back-to-school model, each student physically attending school must be tested at least once a week (three times a week would be preferable). And these students must obtain the results of their tests before stepping onto the schoolbus before his or her next trip to school. If a “split-week” model is employed (i.e., half the students attend physical school Monday through Wednesday morning or afternoon, or Thursday through Saturday morning or afternoon), the results must be available within 18 hours from tests conducted on Wednesdays or Sundays. With an alternating day model, test results must be available within 42 hours, also three times a week.

Tests and near-instant test results are clearly available and affordable for our “chosen few.” We must make them available and possible for our students. Right now, few laboratories have even a week’s worth of processing chemicals. The longer it takes to reach the level of tests and quick test results we need, the longer it will take to safety return to school. And the worse will be are our chances at economic recovery. Fortunately, hopeful things occur every day: On August 4th, six states formed an alliance with the Rockefeller Foundation and two U.S. manufacturers to purchase three million “rapid results” tests. Whether any other nations will sell us such supplies remains to be seen. Realistically, our combination of national and international behavior has turned us into the world’s largest island. To have a realistic chance, we must decentralize the stranglehold of our own oligopolies. Plus the accuracy of our test results must improve: Abbott Lab’s first batch of PCR tests yielded false positives 48 percent of the time. More recent tests from Becton Dickinson and Quidel yielded false negatives 15 to 20 percent of the time. At the end of August, “Test Iowa” could not verify positive or negative test results. This is not testing. Its pin the tail on the donkey. The JEP, the MOW and the LOC are in full force, and we have much to do to offset their control over even the handful of tasks identified in this model.

System Design, Routing, Scheduling and Stop Selection

The three-decades-long resistance to system design, and the sole reliance on robots to perform routing, scheduling and stop selection must end. The service area of each of the four (ideally) three-tiered runs provided twice a day each, on alternate days (or differing every three days on split-week models) cannot be accomplished simply by dividing the service area into four quadrants. As noted, both students’ sleep/wakeful cycles and their parents employment obligations (and changes) will greatly complicate routing, and involve the collection, analysis and application of a significant amount of information which would take live Earthlings forever to enter as “overrides” to computerized schedules. Routing and scheduling robots cannot meet this challenge. The system design changes needed, and much of the routing and scheduling, must be performed manually. The data collection and routing effort cannot begin soon enough. But our digital capabilities can help sort this information, greatly facilitating its analysis. Otherwise, with simple color-coded-and numbered Avery dots placed on Mylar overlays on top of a “base map” of the service area, reasonably-efficient routing lies within every transportation director’s or scheduler’s reach.

This challenge is trivial for most elementary schools, with most students residing within walking distance, and few students to route on schoolbuses. This challenge become more complex with middle schools, and even greater with high schools. In major urban areas with hundreds of schools, thousands of schoolbuses and hundreds of thousands of students, the time needed to perform such routing manually could be enormous (depending on how schools with various districts are configured). So some reliance on computers may be necessary, particularly as we have grown accustomed to not performing such tasks manually at all. But as both a cost and system design reality, we cannot afford to continue to ignore the relationships between (a) school locations, (b) student locations, and (c) storage yard locations. Robots cannot design transportation systems and eliminate the waste that failing to design them yields. In certain segmented ways, robots may still contribute to the solutions. Integrating analog and digital route design, scheduling and stop selection is yet another challenge in large urban areas where manual scheduling is unrealistic. We have little time to work this integration out. But conceding these tasks solely to robots is a formula for failure.

Regarding the constraint of fleet size, the school bus fleet can be meaningfully supplemented by the inclusion of taxicabs (with Plexiglas shields) and motorcoaches (most of which contain restrooms, among a considerable number of other amenities). And with an attendant on board each motorcoach (like every schoolbus), the lack of crossing devices will be irrelevant, as the attendants could escort the students across the roadway. (Taxis should provide only exclusive-ride, curb-to-curb service -- involving no crossing of roadways.) Since 2001, every motorcoach manufactured contains a wheelchair lift and two securement positions. Particularly given the number of students who are homeless, and those residing in communities without running water, we cannot find enough motorcoaches. But deployed sensibly, most of the 33,000 available (all do not contain restrooms) can provide enormous help. So too could tens of thousands of taxis. One finds one or both in every service area.

In contrast, I would be cautious in using Uber, Lyft or other “transportation network companies.” These unmanaged, superficially-monitored formats using untrained, “gig workers” driving during those hours they please have already decimated three other public transportation sectors (taxicabs, limousines and fixed route transit), and are beginning to damage the motorcoach, paratransit and NEMT sectors. They are lurching to jump into special needs transportation. Unless this mode can operate according to the same safety standards as more traditional public transportation modes, they should not be included in any service area’s solution to the challenge of providing pupil transportation in the COVID-19 era.

Finally, and noting the risks of driver fatigue, the notion of doubling the number of schoolbus drivers after three decades of driver shortages should not be an issue in a nation already experiencing tens of millions of unemployed workers). Plus, all these drivers will (for a change) enjoy full-time employment on a straight shift (not part-time employment on a split shift). We have ample time to recruit, hire and train a new workforce of skilled, responsible school bus drivers before the full resumption of physical school begins. An attendant on board every schoolbus should also help these new drivers operate more safely, particularly by optimizing passenger management. Further, training many attendants to also drive would also eliminate the compromises presented by substitute drivers.

The Roles and Rigors of Educators

Beyond the exhaustive role of high school teachers in this model from the expansion of their hours (to provide two full sessions of school every day, and to allow transportation providers to optimize their use of tiers), their educational roles must also expand considerably. Beyond educating students, teachers will now have to also educate their parents and the citizenry at large. They must teach parents about their children’s diets, smoking, vaping, sleep, opioids and even alcohol (which deteriorates the quality of sleep). Most importantly, they must join the spectrum of existing advocates to prevent those less-committed to the success of this challenge from ruining its solution by infecting the students during non-school hours during their participation in non-school-related activities. And our teachers must do a better job of this than the parade of new and talk show guests, experts as they may be. Face-to-face, at the local level, our nation’s teachers will hopefully do a better job. For a version of this model to work, they will have to.

Another quirk of this two-session-a-day model is that while the hours of high school teachers will increase considerably, middle and elementary school teachers will effectively be forced to work “split shifts” – even if the total span of these shifts is not excessive (as it would not be for elementary school teachers). If the use of tiers is optimized, this reality will be almost as rough on middle school teachers as on high school teachers.

Costs, Benefits, Savings and Pay-Back

Adding an estimated 3.2 million teacher’s aides, another 500,000 drivers, and 1 million attendants/bus monitors to the mix will create roughly 4.7 million new jobs – not to mention retaining the jobs of the existing 3.2 million teachers and reinstating roughly 500,000 drivers to their jobs (jobs that disappeared when Zoom school began). Adding additional cafeteria workers, janitors, nurses, administrative staff, bus (and supplier) manufacturing workers, mechanics and many others to accommodate six 12- to 14-hour schooldays a week could bring the total of new jobs to 5.5 million, or possibly more. In the broad context of our nation’s recovery, we cannot afford to ignore such an opportunity.

Just as tens of millions of jobs have been systematically eliminated in recent decades, many that existed just six months ago have disappeared. Millions more may. In recent years, the average American purchased 70 items of clothing a year. Right now, I and many of my friends cannot give away our clothes fast enough. This past April, clothing sales fell 79% -- the largest decline since records of such things have been kept. A major trend in the Old Normal was shopping. A major trend in the New Normal will be savings: Compared to recent recessions, the personal savings rate this past January soared from 8 percent to 20 percent—before almost any American had heard of COVID-19. A huge spectrum of jobs that recently existed are simply not coming back. We recently eliminated most stores. And driverless vehicles threaten to eliminate another 3.5 million truck driving jobs. We cannot dare squander the chance to create 5 ½ million new ones, even if they last only a few years.

Beyond these job-related costs, every student will need a reliable computer and the skill to use it. And he or she will need to cover the increasing monopoly-controlled costs associated with its operation (Windows 10, monthly Google fees, Microsoft Office, etc.). Many of these costs can be recovered in the long-run. If sustained, learning to design transportation systems, optimize tiers and deploying fewer vehicles can translate into enormous cost savings in the future – in many service areas, cutting operating costs in half. The same is true for the costs of providing healthy food to students and their families. Better-educated students will contribute more significantly to our future economic growth and competitiveness.

The vehicle shortage noted and the inability of most school districts to make new purchases because of budget cuts and cost increases for many of the elements of this model presents a unique problem all by itself. However, physical school cannot occur if students cannot get to them. One way or another, our schoolbus manufacturing industry should morph into multi-shift-per-day wartime production mode, and crank out the next decade’s worth of buses in the next several years. If and when things settle down, production can be cut back. The extra workers will have time to find other things to do. And the OEMs and suppliers can live off the additional profits they earned during the manufacturing explosion.

For an array of reasons, there has been much discussion about the accelerated development of a vaccine. We are certainly pouring money into it. But most vaccine experts believe that there are limits to the shortcuts that can be taken. And every shortcut comes with its own set of risks – during its development and, worse, if the widely-distributed results prove to be premature. Among these risks, COVID-19 could morph into something different, possibly even worse. And the quicker and less-proven any vaccine is, the greater will be the number of individuals who refuse inoculation. Historically, the quickest-developed vaccine every developed, for the mumps, took five years. If my hunches about a vaccine are realistic, we will be living with masks and social distancing for a few more years. The time to build as many schoolbuses as possible is now. The time to pay for them is later. The way to pay for them is to master and later apply many of the key disciplines of this model. If the wonder drug comes along, the additional 5.5 million jobs we can create will not last as long. But we can learn many lessons to help pay for them while they were needed and performed.

Irrespective of the results of the upcoming election, the funds to cover these needs will likely become available shortly after January 20, 2021, and one can count on plans for them beginning to materialize shortly after this coming election day on Nov. 3rd. As a consequence, it would be reasonable and prudent for pharmaceutical manufacturers, laboratories, healthy food producers, computer manufacturers and schoolbus manufacturers (and their suppliers) to immediately invest in the production of the resources needed for this model to succeed. The next Administration is almost certain to reimburse these participants for their investments – particularly since getting students back to physical school has recently become the nation’s highest priority, economically and politically, for both political parties. Irrespective of which team is elected, the safety of our population, the need for students to return to physical school and the need to create jobs will continue to exist, and the opportunity to create 5.5 million jobs in the process of addressing these needs cannot reasonably or responsibly be disregarded.
Our stock market has still not collapsed in light of the lowest growth in GDP since records of it began being kept. So we can expect the stock market to be wildly bullish in support of such investments. Frankly, it has little choice: If we fail, the stock market will be dragged down along with everything else.

Regardless, just as many entities and individuals will be required to contribute enormous sacrifices, other individuals and companies stand to obtain substantial short- and medium-term benefits. The long-term benefits to every individual, agency and company from successfully implementing solutions like those in the model outlined here are clear.

Insofar as benefits, the unusual structure of schooling proposed herein will afford students a significant window for not only domestic catch-up, but worldwide catch-up. If we can give our students six days of school a week, with classes half their normal size, add a teacher’s aide to every classroom, get our students healthy, and even encourage learning on the bus, our students can truly catch up – if they cannot indeed forge ahead, even if this model must be sustained for several more years.

Challenges Ahead

These tasks and adjustments seem like a lot to perform in five months. While almost every element noted is difficult, each is possible, and we have enough time to accomplish them. And the tasks are broken up among a variety of participants, including hundreds of exceptional individuals within the educational and transportation communities, the healthcare community, the vehicle manufacturing community, major corporations, and others. Thousands of transportation personnel have months to learn how to design systems and create routes. Plus, the students will receive five months of Zoom schooling during the transition/preparation period. Many activities – primarily those involving health, diet, exercise and sleep – will prepare the students for greater productivity and sustained health once they physically return to school.

Every challenge cannot be addressed in a single article, no matter how long. One particularly troubling problem is the fact that many students currently travel to and from school on transit, a Petri dish being worsened as ridership returns while transit agencies are using the virus as an excuse to reduce the number of vehicles they deploy – as a result, squeezing passengers closer together than they were before the pandemic arrived. To keep these students safe, we will have to mode-split them to other modes of school travel. Otherwise, we will have to prioritize their constant testing and the speed of obtaining their test results. In tying the need for testing to the success of any back-to-school model, each student physically attending school must be tested three times a week (as detailed above). And these students must obtain the results of their tests before stepping onto the schoolbus before his or her next trip to school. If a “split-week” model is employed (i.e., half the students attend physical school Monday through Wednesday morning or afternoon, and the others Thursday through Saturday morning or afternoon), the results must be available in no more than 18 hours. With an alternating day model, test results must be available in no more than 42 hours. If they cannot be tested, when their tests turn up positive, or if their test results cannot be produced quickly enough, these students will face periods of quarantine and even more Zoom school.

More troubling, it is impossible to completely control the behavior of the population at large, members of which all or most students will encounter while away from school.  A July 17, 2020 article in the New York Times noted that 14 percent of Americans never wear masks. Even in Vietnam, whose first Covid-related death occurred this past July 31st, 71 percent of its population always wears masks (in appropriate circumstances). Only 59% of Americans always do so (in appropriate circumstances). The responsibilities of our educational sector, and others, to cope with such problems must expand dramatically.

If a small group of each state’s “finest” can tweak this model into a detailed plan tailored to their school districts’ densities, demographics, fleet sizes and school locations – and do so in a matter of weeks – they can hand their respective governors a detailed plan by mid-October that will give them the justification for postponing the launch of a dangerously premature start of the school year, and a coherent argument for doing so to constituents on both sides of the political divide. And these plans will provide realistic hope for those who experienced the failures of some premature returns to school – as many colleges learned during their second week of school. Outbreaks within several major university’s football teams – our healthiest and strongest – have corroborated the risks of premature, unprepared return to school. Patience is no longer a virtue. It has become a necessity. But it is only realistic with a plan.

If this overview accomplishes nothing else, it should provide a preview of the cost of failure. To re-emerge as a coherent, functioning nation, with 50M cases of infection likely to emerge in the next year, a model like this one may be our last chance. We cannot afford to fail. This effort is not a contest. It is not a task that money can buy. It is Normandy.

Ned Einstein is the President of Transportation Alternatives, a passenger transportation and automotive consortium engaged in consulting and forensic accident investigation and analysis (more than 600 cases). Specializes in elderly, disabled, schoolchildren. Mr. Einstein has been qualified as an Expert Witness in accident analysis, testimony and mediation in vehicle and pedestrian accidents involving transit, paratransit, schoolbus, motorcoach, special education, non-emergency medical transportation, taxi, shuttle, child transport systems and services...

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