Massachusetts schools have one less barrier to getting children back to school full time: Buses can be full, according to a new state rule.
State education officials last week revised COVID-19 guidelines so buses can run at full capacity. Students must, however, continue to wear masks and other health measures must be observed, such as bus windows being open slightly for ventilation.
The state previously limited school buses to a third of their capacity so students could sit apart from each other — a safeguard against the spread of COVID-19.
Even though the state has relaxed the limit on busing capacity, students must remain as far apart as possible.
"In all cases, the maximum distance between students should be maintained during boarding and transportation, and all other safety protocols are still required, including wearing masks and opening (bus) windows a couple of inches," a document explaining the state guideline states.
State education officials still recommend children on buses sit as far apart as possible, and that they share seats with siblings instead of non-family members to decrease the possibility of virus transmission. It is also recommended that students stay three feet apart when standing at bus stops and wherever else possible.
Bus capacity has been one of the biggest constraints placed on school districts as they navigate reopening schools during the pandemic.
Massachusetts communities are required to provide transportation to school for all students in kindergarten through sixth grade who live farther than two miles from their school. Some towns, including Andover, stopped transporting older students so the district can accommodate the COVID-19 limits to the number of students on a bus. Having fewer students than normal on a bus forces a school district to make a choice: Have more bus runs, which runs up transportation costs, or limit the number of students who ride buses.
Several local communities — including Haverhill, North Andover, Methuen and Andover — use a hybrid learning model, which has students in classrooms two days per week and learning remotely from home the other three days. That arrangement exists partly because the number of students allowed on buses was limited until now.
The Andover School Committee recently wrote a letter to state education officials asking them to remove the requirement that communities transport students living a certain distance from school.
"To bring more students back to school under current restrictions, we need more transportation capacity,'' the committee wrote. "However, buses are scarce, drivers are hard to find and, even if they could be secured — at a contracted rate of approximately $60,000 per bus — adding more is expensive.''
Despite the state relaxing limits to the number of students on buses, there are still challenges to bringing children back to school. They include the distance required between students in classrooms and while they eat meals, said Shannon Scully, chair of the Andover School Committee.
"I'm happy (the state) is updating their guidance to reflect current science," Scully said. "I hope they will continue to do this in other areas, including appropriate spacing for students at lunch, music and performing arts, just to name a few areas."
Andover Superintendent Claudia Bach has sent an email to parents saying the district plans to bring kindergarten and first-grade students back to school four days per week starting March 8.