By Linda F. Bluth, Ed.D.
The provision of transportation for children with disabilities during the coronavirus can be depicted as perplexing and complicated. School districts across our nation have overwhelmingly underestimated the debilitating impact of the coronavirus on school transportation for children with disabilities and their non-disabled peers alike.
A transportation director recently described his current experience with transporting children with disabilities as “formidable and unnerving.” A second transportation director commented, “to be candid, it is a complicated mess.” It is evident that transporting children with disabilities to and from school safely during this pandemic has been daunting. The responsibility of providing safe transportation for children with disabilities throughout this pandemic has been profoundly underestimated. Reflecting on transportation conversations for over a year with educational leaders, I often recognize the existence of many unanswered questions about what we are trying to accomplish and how we are going to address challenges and obstacles. One thing is for sure, a single modus operandi for transporting all children with disabilities will not address the task faced by school districts across our nation. A comprehensive, multidisciplinary team approach and a well-thought-out plan is a prerequisite for safely returning children with disabilities to school.
We have learned during this pandemic that effective transportation operations, in place for decades, are not currently working for all children with disabilities. Addressing this exhausting and demoralizing reality requires commitment and resilience. It is essential that we stay focused in times when it is too easy to become discouraged. It is arduous to reconcile all that needs to be done, but a call for excellence, collaboration, patience, and stability is vital to make a difference. One thing is for sure, transportation personnel have worked diligently over the past year and have demonstrated an unrelenting effort to eradicate roadblocks to transporting children with disabilities on school buses. Uncertainty during this pandemic is unparalleled in the history of school transportation. I recognize transportation personnel that have not yielded to extraordinary barriers. There has been no lack of effort on the part of transportation personnel to identify plausible strategies for transporting children with disabilities, but success has been limited due to changing circumstances presented by the pandemic. The coronavirus has created innumerable setbacks due to unanticipated factors impacting school transportation planning, operations, and service delivery. To move forward effectively and efficiently, school districts must be willing to be flexible and identify and address ongoing hurdles.
We have heard opinions from countless individuals and groups including policy specialists, school boards, superintendents, principals, parents, child advocates and union representative about the safe return of children and school personnel to school. However, many issues continue to remain unresolved. Politicians have utilized the media to deliberate about the safest way to return children with disabilities to school with a lack of understanding, knowledge, and expertise.
It is critical to wisely advance the return of children with disabilities to school as soon as possible. If we have learned anything, it is that a defensible plan based on research and data must be used to serve as the foundation for planning and decision-making. The importance of constancy should not be undervalued. All interested stakeholders should have the opportunity to be heard before finalizing and approving a school district return to school plan, including transportation.
In summary, we must focus on solutions that are individualized, well thought-out and accountable. There is no argument that missed special education instruction and related services have left children with disabilities faltering. A productive transition back to school can only be made without pointing fingers and blaming others.
It is time to address what we have learned and implement a strategy that has support and buy in from all interested parties. What is indispensable is a fair, equitable and defendable plan of action placing the primary concern for the well-being of children first. School district leaders should explore multiple innovative solutions to optimize positive results. Getting children with disabilities back to school may be the toughest responsibility yet for school transportation departments, but it can be completed, and I am confident that transportation departments are up for the challenge.
Linda F. Bluth, Ed.D. (firstname.lastname@example.org) is one of the nation’s foremost experts on special needs transportation. She currently serves as Special Needs Transportation Consultant for the National Association for Pupil Transportation® (NAPT).