School bus driver deals with pandemic restrictions, quarantining

WARSAW, Ind. - For the last several months on The Learning Curve, we’ve celebrated so many different heroes inside schools across Michiana as they brave the new normal created by the pandemic. But one often overlooked position, bus drivers, is getting the spotlight Tuesday.

Before the sun rises in Warsaw... there’s one worker already out on the roads. You can say she knows her way around town.

“I've been driving since 1991," Bernie Waikel, a Warsaw Schools bus driver said. “I have about 150 miles, but there are smaller routes, and there are people who drive more than I do.”

And she knows every face boarding the bus. "Good morning Andrea," she is heard saying.

But even after driving a school bus for almost 30 years, Bernie is adjusting.

“Mask on," Bernie tells the students.

She's adjusting to a new normal.

“I get up around 5 o'clock, get around, I usually come out to the bus and get things then do my pre-trip, which includes opening the hood and checking all that fluids and hoses and clamps to make sure everything is in running order," she said.

This year, though it isn’t a question of can the bus safely run. It’s changed to can the bus safely run with kids inside?!

“I got three words of the year improvise, adapt and overcome," Mark Fick, the Director of Transportation for Warsaw Community School said.

For Fick, there was no other option than to figure it out.

"Option A is this and there is no option B. And it's like, do what you got to do, let's get this done. And let's do it. And we succeeded," he said.

In this scenario, option A means in-person learning.

"If we weren't to do what we do, we'd be shut down," he said. “I always go off of what Dr. Hoffert has said to me when I shook his hand ‘Fick get the kids to school because I provide sanctuary for them.’”

And reworking the operation to reflect the new rules has been a bit of a bumpy ride.

"We have 87 buses. Currently, we have 84 employees," he said. “Instead of sometimes, we'd run three, we've had to spread out the students more. We've had to sterilize buses, to get sterilized after each round each day.”

"We have to spray the entire bus as soon as we unload and wipe it down, which is specific to the COVID," Bernie said. “We're wearing the mask of course, and we do have hand sanitizer, and we just wipe everything down make sure it's clean and safe for the kids.”

Getting all of the supplies to continue to operate is expensive.

"We've put a lot of money into the equipment that we needed," Fick said.

A big issue for some has to do with a lack of social distancing on school buses.

"Well, if we could, we would but we just have so many students there, that's not happening," Bernie said.

But how do they make sure that students are following all the rules... while driving?

"Now we got that little mirror up there I can see the faces back here, and they're honestly super great about it," she said.

"We also have videos. I have six cameras on each one of the buses. So we usually drivers or give them a warning, let them know. But essentially, we're not the police, you know, because they have to focus on the road and what they do," Fick said.

What they do have are seating assignments.

"Every student that normally rides my bus has an assigned seat they've got their name up there," Bernie said.

It’s for contact tracing.

"Our seating charts are turned in every week to Mark Fick our Transportation Director so that if something would come up a child gets sick, he has a copy of where they're seated and everybody around them," she said.

"When we're at the high of it, we're doing a lot of contact tracing. And that just helps out once a week, they turn in their seating chart to me on that Monday, for the week," Fick said. “And then we quarantine the bus for 24 hours spread. We have a system that I can run my buses 80 percent. Okay. So if I lose a driver in a certain area, I can take her kids or his or her kids, add them to the other three buses or four buses."

Even with a plan, it hasn't been smooth sailing.

"No, we've we've had some we've had some long days," he said.

Long days... like Monday.

"We've had a bus driver out and 61 and I are splitting his route. So we're going to have extra kids on today, which are normally not," Bernie said.

At least for Bernie.

“I normally have around 40 to 45, and today we're going to be probably pushing 55, 60," she said.

"We did have drivers that came down with COVID. And we just would adjust it there," Fick said. “We can adjust routes, and students, informed parents let them know and then we just keep going.”

"Our office staff and our mechanical staff, they also drive," Christy Newton, the Assistant Director of Transportation for Warsaw Community Schools said. "So if we can't combine that route, we will sub that route. And we have been doing a lot of both."

"We all just kind of work together if something goes down and we need to we make a little shift and yeah that's more kids on the bus, but we're all wearing masks, we're all being as safe as we possibly can, keeping the buses clean and we just make it work," Bernie said.

The stress... getting to some drivers, especially those in high-risk age groups.

“We've had a few that have left," Fick said. "We have more retired people that drive I have policemen. I have retired truck drivers. And just, they're just ready to, you know, they want to take the chance. But now soon, they're coming back because they've gotten the shot.”

And parents…

"They were worried. And then the administration we put out videos, talking about what we're doing, we showed examples of you know, how we're running the buses," he said.

"Once they understood it, it worked out really well," Newton said.

But what's most important, do the kids feel safe?

"Oh yeah. Yeah, I think the kids don't really say that I think the parents do too," Bernie said.

At the end of the day, some good things have come from these harsh times.

"We've learned just so much about who might need help with food," she said.

"We were delivering meals as soon as the pandemic hit. I mean it started out is like 60 meals the first day and it ballooned up to over 1000 a week," Fick said.

'We've parked places because our buses have wi-fi," Bernie said. “So yeah, we've learned so much about, if something would like this happen again. Hopefully not. We're so much more prepared.”

A parent of 7 herself, Bernie knows how important school buses are to local families and wants to continue to be an essential part of the warsaw community.

“I think it's part of my makeup and I know a lot of the other bus drivers are the same. It's a reward to feel their heart and know that they're happy that you're picking them up and they can trust you," she said.

"They're the backbone. They're the back... I mean, we get them to school, we're the first and last step," Fick said.


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