There will be a lot of new rules for school this fall to safeguard students from COVID-19, and that goes for everything school-related, too, including busing.

Detroit Lakes Public School students who bus to and from school can expect quieter rides than usual, as riders will be wearing masks, buses will be filled to only half capacity, and kids will be seated as far apart as possible in order to keep a reasonable amount of distance between them.

Ethan Walz of Olander Bus Service, which provides transportation services for the Detroit Lakes School District, said he’s been working closely with the district to prepare for this fall.

The 50% capacity rule, he said, is required by the state for any school districts operating under a hybrid model of instruction, which the Detroit Lakes district will be starting out with at the middle and high schools (the elementary schools will reopen with face-to-face instruction, but that does not impact the bus capacity rule).

Many precautions will be taken to minimize risk for bus riders, Walz said. They will board the bus from back to front, and they’ll unload from front to back, maintaining space between them for the duration of the ride.

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“Families will sit next to each other,” Walz said, “but we’re going to try to keep adequate distancing between other students. We’ll be leaving seats open to reach that distancing as best we can.”

Drivers will create assigned seating for the kids on their buses to help ensure sufficient spacing, and also to best monitor where students are sitting every day.

To help ease congestion during pick-up and drop-off times at the schools, only one bus at a time will be allowed to unload outside of school in the morning, and in the afternoon, only one class at a time will be allowed to board.

“The key with it all is to be as safe as possible,” said Walz. “That’s our first priority, and we’re going to do all we can to achieve that goal.”

Olander Bus Service, in Detroit Lakes, has been serving the area since 1961. The company provides transportation for the Detroit Lakes Public School District and area private schools. (Marie Johnson / Tribune)
Olander Bus Service, in Detroit Lakes, has been serving the area since 1961. The company provides transportation for the Detroit Lakes Public School District and area private schools. (Marie Johnson / Tribune)

As of Wednesday, Aug. 26, requests for transportation were still coming in, and it appeared there were many still missing, Walz said. Families were asked to get those requests into the school district by the end of the week, or risk losing out on bus service for a two-week waiting period while their kids get worked into a route.

Route planning is more complicated this year, requiring more time and careful evaluation, Walz said, because of the reduced capacity allowed on each bus.

In a typical year, Olander runs 16 routes for the school district: 11 regular routes and five special needs routes, Walz said. That's likely to remain the same this year, unless a bunch of requests come in at the last minute. If that happens, Olander will have to look at adding additional routes, though there aren’t currently enough drivers on staff to accommodate that.

“We’ve talked about adding routes, but we’re going to try and stick with the ones we have,” said Walz. “If it comes down to having too many kids on a bus, we’ll look at it again. But at this time, we don’t see that it’s an issue, with the enrollment that we have.”

No matter what, he said, “We’re not turning anybody away from the busing service. As of right now, routes are down, as far as numbers go.”

The school district has encouraged parents to drive their children to school this fall, or arrange alternate transportation, if possible -- so it's likely fewer families will be using the bus. That helps keep numbers down and thus reduces risk for those kids who do need to take the bus.

The goal for each route, Walz said, is to “get everybody a one-trip ride to school, without going over our capacity limits -- to keep our students safe.”

Students are asked to bring their own masks to wear, but there will be a few extras available on each bus for kids who forget theirs. There will also be hand sanitizer stations on every bus, and drivers will be monitoring kids to make sure they use them.

According to the school district’s Return to School Framework, all students and drivers are required to complete a COVID-19 self-assessment prior to riding the bus every day; Walz said temperature screenings will not be done on the bus, at least not under the current guidelines. Anyone with symptoms of the virus is expected to stay home and follow state guidelines about what to do next.

The Return to School Framework also states that top vents and windows should be kept open as much as possible on the buses to allow for increased air circulation, and students should dress appropriately to compensate for that outside air.

Every bus will be sanitized with electrostatic sprayers in-between routes, Walz said, and drivers will routinely wipe down surfaces with Clorox wipes.

“It’s going to be a crazy year, but our drivers, our staff, we’re excited to get back, we’re excited to see the kids again,” Walz said. “No matter how crazy it is, it’s going to be a happy year. We’re excited to get back, in whatever capacity we are.”

Additional information can be found in the district's Return to School Framework, and in Minnesota's State Planning Guide for Schools.