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Pandemic likely to claim home-to-school bus service for non-special needs students
school bus
Students riding buses — are even being within 6 feet of one another — likely will be history when the next school year starts Aug. 6.

One doesn’t blow a $54 billion hole in the California State budget and expect things to continue as normal.

And given education is the biggest part of the state budget only a fool would buy into the delusional fairy tale ending that state senators are spinning to the COVID-19 containment measures that have already occurred in terms of tax revenue losses and protocols going forward the state will impose on public schools won’t result in significant funding cuts for local schools.

The narrative advanced by state senators Friday sounds good. The state could keep local districts whole by simply deferring funds to educate kids while the district spends down reserves and cuts corners while waiting for deferred money for four or so years. That worked out real well the last times they did it just over a decade ago, didn’t it? In reality the usual hocus pocus act of spineless leadership in Sacramento from the 120 elected individuals occupying office space at the State Capitol very nicely produced a bunch of mumble jumble where they declare “problem solved” and then dump it all on local schools while proclaiming they did their job.

In reality the California Legislature doesn’t disappoint as most have learned by now the primary job of state leaders is to pass the buck as well as making sure they can shove as much of the payment for their refusal to lead instead of placate so far down the road so that doesn’t become due until after they have left office.

This leaves district such as Manteca Unified in precarious spots.

They will no longer be able to fund everything people expected pre-COVID-19 pandemic. And that’s not just because of the loss of massive state revenue from the lockdown but also from rules the state is imposing going forward.

The core mission of schools is to educate kids so they have the tools to reach their potential by achieving academic skills that are tailored to their needs. It is not a one size fits all approach but rather acknowledge every student brings different needs to the table. There are not 24,000 clones Manteca Unified but rather 24,000 individuals.

Now let’s look at the fun game the state is playing.

Manteca Unified transports more than 1,800 students to and from school on any given day.

It costs more than $11,000 per special needs student for home-to-school transportation. The annual cost for others is more than $3,500 per student for home-to-school transportation. The big difference are special needs students under the law must be provided busing that are equipped with wheelchair access and have a much smaller ratio between driver and passengers that require smaller buses.

The state requires special needs students be bused. It provides partial funding to do that but not all. The rest has to come out of the general fund — the pot of money a district has to educate students. There is no money given to schools by the state to bus kids that are not special needs students.

Schools are granted money specifically to educate special needs students. So if the pot becomes smaller to educate students, cuts have to be made somewhere not just to cover the costs for non-special education teaching but the increased cost for special needs student transpiration.

There happens to be no law requiring schools to transport non-special needs students from home-to-school. That is why back in 2008 the district cut busing for all kindergarten through eighth grade students within 1.25 miles for school. Busing was eliminated for all high school students within 2.5 miles of a high school.

The challenge this time around for busing is essentially a double down disaster. Not only is school funding going to be slashed but busing costs are going to go to the moon and beyond due to COVID-19 protocols for schools that are moving forward.

This is not a simple as a school district perhaps going to two staggered sessions each day that could require two sets of school bus routes unless all of the non-special needs students attend the same staggered session.

The problem is social distancing. If you think this is a matter of being hit with the need to double bus trips to reduce the numbers by 50 percent, you would be 100 percent wrong. The only way to achieve social distancing on a large school bus is to reduce capacity by 80 percent.

As for special needs transportation that employ small buses, applying the same distancing policies would turn them into large taxi cabs for either two or three students max.

The school district will have no choice under state law. They will have home-to-school transportation for special needs students. A reduction of bus capacity by 80 percent could likely increase operating costs by as much as 400 percent. The annual cost of transporting a special needs student that has been coming in around $11,000 a year will be more like $55,000 annually per student.

Home-to-school costs for all other students would likely be north of $15,000 a year.

It would be a safe bet that the district at some point — possibly as early as the next school year when it starts Aug. 6 — will have to cut home-to-school transportation for all students except those with special needs if social distancing rules are imposed by the state.

Not that that school board really has much choice in the matter, but once home-to -school busing is gone it’s not coming back.

This will of course increase car trips and make for more congestion around campuses.

It also underscores another hurdle for trying to continue many extra-curricular activities that require busing during the pandemic.

Social distancing fans for football games as well as the need for players to social distance or wear masks that not just prevent the spread of COVID-19 from a person who is infected by doesn’t know they have it because they are not ill but to prevent a healthy person from breathing the virus in which is the gold standard for allowing people to be in close proximity under the pandemic rules Sacramento has imposed is just a part of the puzzle.

How do you get 80 players to away games? You could take 10 buses instead of two but that will jack up the cost 400 percent. You could declare kids are on their own but that assumes their parents can take them. And even if a network of carpooling was put in place for rides to and from games for players without a way of getting their own lift how does liability come into play?

Before COVID-19 there are ways a district could handle such a dilemma by either having Boosters raise bus funds or not providing sports transportation for anyone.

But don’t forget the social distancing rules. The odds are the state would more than frown on a school district program that puts students who aren’t from the same household within 6 feet of someone else in a car in order to participate.

And if you say tough luck to those who want to play in sports but they can’t secure transportation to games from someone in their own household, how does that square with the ability of kids to access extra-curricular activities regardless of their financial situation.

Without a doubt, what unfolds in our public schools in the coming months is going to make the hits and pain of how schools had to change in 2008 with the Great Recession deepened by liar mortgages seem like the good old days.