A ‘mad rush’ to get Berkeley kids to school after most district bus drivers are exposed to COVID

Bus service isn’t expected to resume until Friday, leaving parents scrambling to make carpool plans.

Third through Fifth graders head back to physical classes at Rosa Parks Elementary School, April 13, 2021 Photo: Pete Rosos
A BUSD school bus in front of Rosa Parks Elementary School. File photo: Pete Rosos

Berkeley Unified has temporarily stopped running school buses for elementary students after the majority of the district’s bus drivers were exposed to COVID-19 last week. The cancellation is expected to last through Thursday, Oct. 21, with bus service resuming Friday. (Busing for students with IEPs who receive transportation services will continue as usual.)

Eleven of 21 bus drivers are out Monday due to three separate COVID-19 exposures, the second of which exposed most of the transportation department to COVID-19. The dispatcher and schedule-router, who have been filling in as substitute drivers during staffing shortages, are also out due to the exposure.

According to district policy, staff need to quarantine upon exposure if they are not fully vaccinated or if they are fully vaccinated and symptomatic. There is no modified quarantine option for staff.

None of these cases appear to be the result of transmission at BUSD, nor do they appear to be related, according to Trish McDermott, the district’s spokesperson. There has yet to be an outbreak of three or more related cases of COVID-19 at BUSD this school year.

The cancellation has left families of the roughly 1,400 students who ride the school bus each day scrambling to figure out how to get their kids to and from school this week.

After BUSD announced the temporary cancellation Friday, parents immediately began making carpool plans with neighbors.

Some parents, like Lia Swindle, the parent of a fifth grader at Rosa Parks, decided to trade pick-ups and drop-offs with nearby parents. Swindle, who lives near the Kensington border in the Berkeley Hills, “as far away from Rosa Parks as you possibly can be,” has to drive close to two hours per day. “It’s an inconvenience, but it doesn’t upend our lives,” Swindle said.

The Emerson Elementary Parent-Teacher Association kicked into high gear, identifying students who needed rides and matching them with families who could offer a lift or a place to stay after school. “It was a mad rush,” said Rana Cho, co-president of the Emerson PTA. Altogether, the PTA helped find rides for about a dozen students. (About 50 students rely on school buses at the school.)

Attendance across the elementary schools dipped only 1% on Monday, the first day the bus service was on pause, McDermott said.

Families who live within walking or biking distance of their elementary schools were spared any disruption. Tia Pelz, whose two children bike to Oxford Elementary, said she felt “a feeling of relief that we don’t depend on the bus.” Had Oxford still been located in the hills, it would have been more challenging for the family. “It would have been really hard for us, because it’s not fun to bike up there,” she said.

Still, the temporary cancellation is a painful reminder of the pandemic’s continued effect on the lives of students and parents.

“After a year and a half, you just wish your life could get back to normal,” Swindle said. “It’s just a continuous stream of disruptions.”

The pandemic has exacerbated staffing shortages in school districts across the state, and exposures mean that school districts are constantly under pressure to fill absences. Cho is proud that the PTA was able to pull it off, but felt there wasn’t enough district-wide support.

She said she wishes “there had been more of a preventive solution planned from the district” to deal with exposures that she sees as “foreseeable or predictable.”

McDermott advised families to use the AC Transit Trip Planner to identify alternate routes to school.

The incident has shown some that in-person education can be precarious, leaving some parents worried about what might happen if other, large-scale exposures occur. “I’m more concerned about this happening at a teacher staff meeting,” Swindle said.

Ally Markovich covers education for Berkeleyside. Email: ally@berkeleyside.org. Twitter: allymarkovich.