Education

Iconic yellow buses mean red ink for rural Iowa schools

Government aid helps cope with long-standing inequities

A student donning a mask awaits hand sanitizer Oct. 22 from driver Jackie Walsh as he boards a Charles City Community Sc
A student donning a mask awaits hand sanitizer Oct. 22 from driver Jackie Walsh as he boards a Charles City Community School bus. (Silvia Oakland/IowaWatch
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Vicki and Matt Bruening live on a Floyd County acreage with six children ranging from a fourth-grader to a sophomore in high school.

The farm family, like many others across Iowa, was concerned whether school doors would open in the fall.

“We were most worried about if they wouldn’t be able to go back at all,” Vicki Bruening said. “It’s been a different kind of school year so far, but it’s also been good to get them back in the classroom, back with their friends.”

Bruening drives her kids to school in the morning as a way to provide more time to get ready. In the afternoon while she’s at work, the family relies on school transportation from Charles City’s joint high school and middle school campus, and one of the district’s two elementary schools.

This year, students ride the bus COVID-style: fewer students, more sanitizing and siblings seated together.

Transportation strains on rural school districts predate the COVID-19 pandemic, but the health crisis has challenged officials to a new level of planning to safely bring students back to class for the 2020-2021 school year — and keep the quintessential yellow school bus safe for students and employees alike.

Jerry Mitchell, Charles City Community School District director of operations, compared the amount of work to prepare for school year with his time planning for the Y2K scare in early 2000, when he worked in health care services.

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“I really planned as much for Y2K as what we have for this now,” Mitchell said, referring to fears of widespread outages when the year went from 1999 to 2000 because computer programs had not taken the date change into account. “We’re constantly talking and monitoring students, monitoring transportation, monitoring the buildings.

“Everything we do, whether it’s on the buses or my custodians cleaning the buildings — are we doing enough, are we doing the right thing? That’s always in the back of my mind.”

Rural landscape

The Bruening children are some of the roughly 1,560 students enrolled in the Charles City Community School District in northeast Iowa, which covers four communities in two counties, according to annual transportation data the district published in January.

Outside of a few metro areas and university cities, Iowa school districts predominantly serve rural communities. Since the mid-20th century as student enrollment declined in individual towns, school districts in Iowa rapidly consolidated with other rural communities to get state government education funds, which are awarded on a per-pupil basis.

For fiscal 2020, Iowa’s 327 school districts projected a combined enrollment of 487,652 students in preK-12 grades, according to state data; $3.29 billion in state aid is budgeted for public school districts this year, spending a minimum of $6,736 per student before calculating state supplemental aid based on district enrollment submitted annually to the state in mid-October.

A slice of that funding goes to transportation, a key service for many rural students.

During the 2018-19 school year, public districts collectively spent $169.4 million in transportation operating costs, according to state data, averaging to $696.41 per student transported.

Between 2018 and 2019, Iowa lawmakers approved $30 million in funding for districts with the highest transportation costs per pupil to address inequities, according to the National Education Association.

Out of seven school bus routes in the Charles City Community School District, four are dedicated to students outside of the town’s boundaries. Transportation picks up students on acreages and in the rural communities of Floyd, population of 300, known in the region for the annual Floyd Gospel Sing Festival; Colwell, population of 70; and Bassett, population of 65, which sits in neighboring Chickasaw County.

When district officials began to plan for social distancing on buses, adjustments followed.

Charles City district drivers typically haul 43 to 45 students on a 65-passenger bus; this year, a bus carries about 33 to 35 students, two students per seat, said Mitchell, the director of operations. By state law, students cannot spend more than 75 minutes a day on district-provided transportation to school, which also puts rural districts in a bind planning for more routes.

Planning new year

By early June, Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds signed a proclamation requiring public school districts to develop a Return-to-Learn plan for the school year, mandating that schools hold at least 50 percent of classes in-person unless approved by the state to have remote classes for up to two weeks.

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The district developed a hybrid learning schedule that split grade levels into attending in-person classes on opposite days of the week, which school leaders kept in place until mid-October.

The Charles City district has not confirmed a positive case of COVID-19 since Sept. 23, when the district confirmed a staff member had tested positive; 44 individuals tied to the school district had tested positive by Oct. 1.

“People compare it to World War II as the last time schools were so broadly impacted by something systemic in our society,” said Superintendent Mike Fisher. “This is generational-shifting. We expect school to look different and be different and be better coming through this. We can use this to get better.”

Charles City routes for bus drivers average two hours and 20 minutes round-trip, and new sanitization practices can add up to 45 minutes a route for drivers. Districts with larger boundaries face a big challenge ensuring those buses meet social distance guidelines for COVID-19 and still reach rural students, said Chris Darling, director of the Iowa Pupil Transportation Association.

“There’s no way some school districts have enough equipment or drivers for a 77-passenger bus to go every other seat,” Darling said. “You end up with school districts that have a hard time doing triple routes or double routes because they are so rural, and every school district is so different.”

At an early September IPTA virtual training session, Darling asked member transportation departments to raise hands on-screen if they had problems retaining or attracting bus drivers.

“Some school districts have lost four or five drivers, some lost one or two. They were having a very difficult time attracting drivers to drive school buses right now,” Darling said.

Charles City cross-trained custodial staff and associates to be licensed to drive school buses for afternoon routes, when full-time drivers might be transporting students for activities. Out of 22 drivers, the Charles City district only had one driver step back temporarily.

Paying for it

Through the federal CARES Act passed March 27, the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) Fund awarded $71.6 million to Iowa school districts for COVID-19 assistance, and $26.2 million to Iowa schools through the Governor’s Emergency Education Relief (GEER).

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In the 2018-19 school year — the last year recorded by state data, before COVID-19 protocols influenced district spending — the Charles City district reported a net operating transportation budget of $331,593, about $505 per student using transportation services.

Out of this spring’s ESSER Fund, the district budgeted $70,000 to support remote learning and $45,000 for health and safety measures, which included cleaning and managing transportation services for students, said Mitchell.

Funds are awarded to public school districts, but private schools also receive funding through “equitable service” provisions.

That means the Charles City district received $315,302 through ESSER, but $33,683 went to the private Immaculate Conception Elementary School in Charles City to support its students who use the public school transportation and other services. Through GEER, the district got $95,600; with $9,200 of it going to the private school students.

It’s helpful, Fisher said, but hard to know how long the district must make it last.

“Depending on how long the pandemic goes on, it absolutely can start to drain those resources,” Fisher said.

The Iowa Center for Public Affairs Journalism-IowaWatch is a nonprofit, news website that collaborates with news organizations to produce explanatory and investigative reporting. Read more or support our journalism at www.IowaWatch.org. This piece is part of a collaborative reporting project that includes the Institute for Nonprofit News, Charlottesville Tomorrow, El Paso Matters, IowaWatch, The Nevada Independent, New Mexico in Depth, Underscore News/Pamplin Media Group and Wisconsin Watch/The Badger Project. The collaboration was made possible by a grant from the Walton Family Foundation.

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