By Peter Mannella

Several years ago, at an annual conference I was planning in New York, I invited a guest speaker who specialized in child and family social trends and conditions. My intention was for her to share information with the pupil transportation professionals in the room about the children who get our attention and who we all profess to care about. What are their lives like? What issues do they present with them when they walk up those steps into the bus? What are they facing when they leave the school bus and walk back into their homes?

At an NAPT annual conference the following year, we heard former Idaho Governor and Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne invoke the sentiment that we, school transportation folks, are the first school people that kids see in the morning and the last that they see in the afternoon. That context presents us with a serious responsibility to know and understand those children and, most importantly, to prepare our drivers with an awareness of and sensitivities to those children and their needs. And that leads to the purpose for this article and these thoughts.

The Environment in Summer of 2021

In reading over the past few weeks, the number of articles and essays on the unforeseen impacts of the pandemic has been remarkable. Most concerning is the impact on our children of isolation from friends and social networks, extended periods of time alone, increased interaction with adults who are also stressed, and the like. This is exacerbated by the fact that many families have become homeless or are experiencing hunger or poverty in ways they have not ever experienced. 

Recent studies show that there have been 91,000 drug-induced deaths during the pandemic, a significant increase from prior years. Alcoholism is on the rise and has accompanied an increase in domestic violence incidents involving not only adults but, increasingly, the children. Sociologists and educators refer to such events as “ACE” or Adverse Childhood Experiences. Children whose lives are disrupted by one of these events can be shaken for extended periods. Children who are disrupted by multiple events, especially those involving violence, may never be the same again.

NY Times columnist Nicholas Kristof shared in a recent essay about students who are being traumatized but have been isolated by the pandemic from the usual safe places to talk or to go for help. The director of a children’s shelter in Oregon refers to some of the children she sees as “the walking wounded.” The principal of a private alternative school in Seattle suggests that “some kids we will just lose.” And one national research study suggests that more than 3 million children have missed out on their education (remote or otherwise) for this entire year.

There is no way that such situations and environments will not affect these children for the short-term or for the long-term. While difficult to comprehend in some ways, we cannot overstate the potential impact of this kind of trauma on the children we transport to their schools and homes.

How Does This Affect School Transportation?

Our drivers and aides are, as we stated earlier, the first people who see the children each school day and they are the last school employees to see them at the end of their day. As an industry, we must begin now to prepare those professionals with the knowledge and skills they need to be sources of strength and calm for the children. In the fall, they likely will be coming back to school in full force. And with them, they will bring the pain of their parents fighting or their parents punishing them. They may come after having lost a parent, grandparent, or sibling to COVID-19, or to addiction or suicide. 

In some cases, our school leaders already know of such incidents and it will be vital that our drivers be entrusted with that information so that they are aware of and alert to troubling behaviors. In other cases, no one may know of the incidents that are weighing on the child. That means that a bus driver may be the first to encounter a child in trouble or a child in fear. This means the drivers must be alert and aware and able to share with school officials what they see and sense from children.

This calls for development and deployment of training for drivers and aides so they can better understand emotional trauma, help them to identify it and give them tools to respond to it when it is manifested on their school buses. We cannot simply leave our drivers alone with hurting children without having prepared them adequately as caring human beings. That is not how we roll.

Drivers May Need You, Too

Consider the fact that this pandemic has been so far-reaching that many of our drivers and aides may have also experienced the illness and may have lost a family member or neighbor over these many months. In fact, your own operations may have felt the sting of losing a colleague or more than one. That will place a role on our shoulders as leaders and managers to create an environment of support and strength for these, our front-line essential workers. We will also need to engage in training and knowledge development to be better colleagues and managers for these employees as they also make the transition.

It is timely to speak with your school leadership now to identify and explore ways that the schools are planning to address such matters over the summer and into the new school year. Employee assistance programs or team-building exercises may be appropriate but more intensive counseling for our team members may also be in order. It is wise to not wait till the start of school when drivers are out on the road and kids are on the buses. 

And include drivers and aides and other school bus team members in your discussions and planning. This will help you better understand what they are feeling and what they may be needing. And we all know that people like to be asked and consulted so that they feel like a part of the plan. 

Seeking Out Resources

There are programs available in all communities to deal with trauma, including family violence, drug and alcohol addiction, homelessness, hunger, suicide, and other issues. Some are school-based and will often be an integral part of a school’s offerings. Others are community-based or based in religious institutions or non-profit organizations. Seek them out in collaboration with your school officials, including human resources departments, pupil personnel and safety departments, counseling and guidance teams and others. We must all rally around our children at this time and we will all need to focus as well on the strength and emotional stability of our drivers, on whom the children rely.

In Closing

It is a lot to be sure. But together and with open hearts and minds, we can do this.

And while we are on the topic, while you are taking care of the children and of those who are your front-line team…be sure to look out for and take care of yourself. You are important, too.

Frederick Douglass is oft quoted as saying that “it’s easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.” There is a lesson in those words and we in school transportation play a key role in helping to build strong children and in preventing them from harm. That always been Mission #1 for us all.

Peter Mannella (pfman5@gmail .com) is chair of the NAPT Public Policy Committee.