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How a rural Iowa school district changed busing

Vicki and Matt Bruening live on a Floyd County acreage with six children ranging from a sophomore in high school to a fourth-grader.

Like others in Iowa, the family makes a living in agribusiness: both Bruenings operate an agricultural repair business in New Hampton, and Matt farms with his uncle on family land nearby.

At home, the family raises goats and chickens, with the help of their kids. When COVID-19 shut down Iowa schools over the spring break season in March, farm life gave the Bruenings the benefit of staying busy — but as time progressed, the family was still 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.

“Three p.m. is a pretty early pickup time and I can’t always be there, so it really needs to be that they ride the bus,” Bruening said.

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

Transportation strains on rural school districts may pre-date the COVID-19 pandemic, but the global health crisis challenged school 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 the 2020-21 school year to his time planning for the Y2K glitch scare in early 2000, when he worked in healthcare services.

“I really planned as much for Y2K as what we have for this now,” Mitchell said. “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.”

A RURAL LANDSCAPE

The Bruening children are some of the approximately 1,560 students enrolled in the Charles City Community School District in north Iowa, which covers four communities in two counties — approximately 224 square miles in the 2018-2019 school year, according to annual transportation data filed by the district to the state, and published in January 2020.

Outside of central Iowa 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 education funds, which are awarded by the government per-pupil.

For fiscal year 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 off school district enrollment, which is submitted annually to the state by districts in mid-October.

A slice of that funding goes to transportation, a key service for many rural students. A report by the national research nonprofit Rural School and Community Trust reports that 9.3 million students in the U.S. were enrolled in rural school districts for the 2018-2019 school year. Iowa is one of 12 states where at least half of public schools in the states are rural schools, serving nearly 1 in 3 of the state’s public school students, the Rural School and Community Trust reported. Out of the state’s total spending in education, 30.6 percent that year went to rural public school districts.

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

Between 2018 and 2019 Iowa lawmakers approved $30 million in funding for school districts with the highest transportation costs per pupil to address transportation 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 normally haul 43-45 students on a 65-passenger bus; this year, a bus carries about 33-35 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 their school, which also puts rural districts in a bind planning for more routes.

PLANNING A NEW SCHOOL YEAR

By early June, Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds signed a proclamation requiring public school districts to develop a Return-to-Learn plan for the 2020-2021 school year, mandating that schools hold at least 50% of classes in-person unless approved by the state to hold temporary remote classes for up to two weeks.

Over the summer the Charles City district recruited more than 70 community members to planning committees to decide how students would return to school — ranging from district leadership, staff members, students, parents and outside education experts, said Superintendent Mike Fisher.

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. From Oct. 19-Nov. 2, the district is phasing grades 6-8 back into an in-person schedule five days a week. Because the high school is an older building with less efficient airflow systems, grades 9-10 will transition into a four-day in-person schedule, and grades 11-12 will transition to three days a week.

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,” Fisher said. “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.

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