As area schools draw nearer to deciding if they will bring students back to school this fall, the details of how they will handle student bussing remain unclear.

Parents and bus drivers alike fear it will be a challenge to create the kind of physical distancing necessary to prevent the spread of coronavirus on school buses. But, unless schools choose to remain entirely virtual, districts must provide some kind of pupil transportation. State law requires districts take at least students with special needs to and from school.

Neither Charlottesville City Schools nor Albemarle County Public Schools have finalized their pupil transportation plans for fall — and a spokeswoman for Charlottesville’s district said they would not discuss their busing plan until after the board of supervisors decides if it will offer in person learning this fall.

Both districts will decide on Thursday if they will open schools for in person or virtual learning — or some kind of hybrid.

“We just don’t want to overload parents with information that may not even be relevant to them depending on the plan we elect,” Beth Cheuk, a Charlottesville City Schools spokesperson, said in an email.

The district has, however, been encouraging parents not to send their children to school on the bus if they have other options.

“Bus space will be limited,” Cheuk wrote.

ACPS has spoken about its working bus plans, though officials are quick to say it is all hypothetical until the district knows how many students will take the bus to school this fall.

The district is currently surveying parents about how they intend to get their children to school. That survey will conclude next week, said Phil Giaramita, a spokesperson for the school district.

“That will give us a firm idea of what we will be planning for,” Giaramita said.

On a normal year, about two-thirds of Albemarle County’s 14,000 students take the bus, he said. Early survey results indicate that number may be about half this year.

That would still be thousands of students.

“I’ve decided I would take [my youngest daughter] back and forth,” said Angela Bufford, an ACPS parent. “But, for the rest of my kids, I’ll need the bus.”

Bufford has six kids in her house, aged 7 to 17. She stays at home with them while her husband works in construction. The family doesn’t have much money, she said.

“That would be a lot of gas,” Bufford said. “We’re struggling as it is.”

Many parents are in similar situations, Giaramita said.

“There are parents who would really struggle to get their kids to school if we didn’t have pupil transportation,” Giaramita said. “We need to support those students and get them safely to school.”

The district is considering multiple changes to its busing policies that it hopes would reduce the chances of coronavirus spreading on buses, Giaramita said.

It plans to require students wear masks while on the bus. Buses will likely be stocked with masks for students who do not have one, Giaramita said — though he added that the board of supervisors has not yet passed a policy requiring students wear masks.

The district is considering requiring drivers to ask students if they’re experiencing symptoms of COVID-19 — like a fever or cough — before allowing them to board, Giaramita said. Drivers will also likely have to sanitize their buses between trips. Bus windows may be left open to increase ventilation.

To satisfy physical distancing guidelines, the district plans to allow only one child per seat.

“That will reduce the bus’s capacity from 70 to about 24,” Giaramita said. “That means we may have to make several more trips to accommodate everyone. And that could affect start times.”

Some schools may stagger start times to accommodate the increased bus trips, he said.

The precautions Albemarle are considering are similar to those being implemented at school districts across the country. 

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has issued guidelines for operating buses — which include spacing out students, requiring masks and frequently sanitizing the vehicle.

These steps will help, said Mike Martin, the executive director of the National Association for Pupil Transport, a student transportation industry trade association based in New York.  But there’s only so much anyone can do to make a school bus safe from coronavirus.

Buses are inherently difficult places to physically distance and ventilate, Martin said.

“A school bus is intentionally designed to be the safest vehicle on the road,” he said. “It’s intended to keep kids as safe as possible when there is an accident. It’s not created to have good air circulation. It’s not created to keep people physically distant. It’s a moving vehicle. It’s a big metal tube.”