Under normal circumstances, Kelly Murphy said this time of year typically brings with it a lot of excitement.
Murphy, a bus driver with Lompoc Unified School District, would normally be solidifying her route schedule and looking forward to meeting her new students as summer break winds to a close.
This year, however, LUSD is planning to open the new school year on Aug. 17 by employing online distance learning. With almost all students set to remain at home for at least the start of the 2020-21 school year — thus not needing a ride on a school bus — Murphy said her mix of emotions this summer contains a heavy dose of nervousness.
“Fall is coming up and we don’t know what’s going to happen,” she said Friday as she stocked a bus with food to be delivered to Maple High School. “This is my livelihood, my income.”
Murphy isn’t the only bus driver to have those concerns. Although there are protections in place to ensure that bus drivers are able to keep their jobs, the drivers in LUSD aren’t sure what those jobs will look like during the upcoming school year, nor how many hours they will be able to work if students remain off-campus.
“Everybody’s wondering what’s going to happen, and we are in the same boat,” said Aurora Osua, a supervisor in LUSD’s transportation department. “We’ve never had this happen before, and it’s not easy. A lot is uncertain.”
One thing that does appear certain is that the drivers will continue to be paid, though it’s unclear how many hours they will be able to work.
After schools were closed in March, many of the drivers continued receiving their normal paychecks through June 4, the final day of the 2019-20 school year.
Those who were considered not to be at high risk for complications from COVID-19 were able to continue working through the end of June as LUSD provided free meals to children at several school sites and four bus stops around the city. The number of bus stops for the daily meals was cut to two in July, but some drivers still were able to work for almost the entire summer break.
In addition to delivering food to the community, some drivers also picked up extra work in LUSD’s central kitchen or helped in other areas, as their jobs allowed.
Bree Valla, a deputy superintendent for LUSD, commended the drivers for continuing to serve students, even if in a different capacity than they were accustomed.
“Our transportation department has really stepped up during the pandemic and has proven their dedication to our students and community,” she said. “They pivoted and adjusted when we transitioned to distance learning and, in conjunction with our Child Nutrition Services Department, made sure our families had access to quality food.”
The drivers will now pivot again as the new school year approaches.
LUSD has 22 regular bus drivers, plus 11 bus attendants who provide aid to students with special needs.
Christie Madden, the manager of LUSD’s Transportation Services, noted the drivers will start the new school year with the same amount of guaranteed hours that they were guaranteed in March prior to the pandemic. After 20 days of the 2020-21 school year, those hours will be adjusted. Although it is unknown how they will change, it is widely expected that they will be reduced.
Drivers, who are considered part-time in LUSD, typically work anywhere from 4.75 to 7 hours per day, according to Madden. They are guaranteed a minimum of 4 hours.
Considering that drivers are likely to lose out on many of the opportunities to boost those hours, such as by driving for field trips, many will likely be closer to that minimum than in years past.
That could change when schools reopen, Madden pointed out, “but it’s so up in the air as to when kids will be back in school again.”
No drivers have been laid off or furloughed during the pandemic, and none are expected to be after the state Assembly this summer passed Assembly Bill 77, which prohibits governing bodies from laying off or releasing any school employees who hold classifications in, or are assigned to positions in, nutrition, transportation or custodial services.
There will be at least some work available right away when the school year starts, Madden said. She noted that drivers will be brought back for “deep cleaning on the buses — top to bottom sanitizing and just cleaning every single part of the bus that they can.”
She acknowledged that regular work after that could be limited.
“Who knows how long this is gonna take?” she said. “I don’t see [the drivers] coming every day for three months straight to clean buses, but honestly I don’t really have too much else for them to do.”
Valla said that bus drivers will likely continue to help with food deliveries during the school year and that LUSD administrators were considering beefing up that service for families that might have limited or no transportation of their own.
“This may involve delivering food to the homes of students,” Valla said.
Francisco Galvan, who has driven buses in LUSD for four years, said he was looking forward to picking up students again but would roll with the punches and adapt for as long as he needs.
“It’s pretty much the same thing,” he said of his job duties this summer and for what he expects will continue into the fall. “We just have to adjust to different areas and different rules.”
Madden said she has heard concerns from some drivers but noted that there isn’t much she can tell them due to the constantly changing nature of the ongoing health crisis.
She acknowledged that the outlook can seem bleak as coronavirus cases continue to rise around the state and Santa Barbara County, but she said she has advised her staff to not necessarily lump Lompoc in with its neighboring communities.
“We’re unique here in ourselves,” she said. “We don’t have as many [coronavirus] cases as maybe Santa Maria or Santa Barbara, so we may be able to bring kids back sooner.”
Willis Jacobson covers the city of Lompoc. Follow him on Twitter @WJacobsonLR.
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