Will school buses lead to students spreading COVID-19 this fall?

NORFOLK, Va. — School buses are notorious for being cramped and overcrowded during the school year. It’s a combination that’s a major concern for both parents and educators as a new school year rapidly approaches. However, a new study finds, if officials take the proper precautions, school buses won’t become COVID-19 super-spreader locations during the pandemic.

Researchers from the Children’s Hospital of The King’s Daughters in Virginia say school bus transportation won’t result in a large COVID outbreak if officials follow certain safeguards this fall. Their findings come from a review of over 1,100 students in an independent Virginia school during the 2020-21 school year.

Study authors monitored the health of each student using weekly PCR testing for coronavirus between Aug. 28, 2020 and March 19, 2021. From this group, 462 children took 15 buses to school each day. School officials made sure to enforce universal masking rules, maintain proper ventilation on the buses, and only seat two children in each seat while maintaining a 2.5-foot distance.

Buses won’t lead to a COVID super-spread?

Researchers only detected 39 cases of COVID-19 during the study, leading to 52 students needing to enter quarantine for possible exposure. Despite these infections, the study finds there was no transmission of the virus which could be linked to school bus transportation. Researchers used universal testing methods and contact tracing to arrive at that conclusion.

“The pandemic has made it very difficult for public schools to meet the transportation needs of students. Many districts simply do not have enough buses and drivers to allow distancing of 3-6 feet or skipping of bus rows while still providing rides to all children,” says corresponding author Dana Ramirez, MD, in a media release.

“With more students returning to face-to-face instruction, safe transportation to school is an equity issue, as many families are unable to drive their children to school each day… We recognize that schools are under pressure to make data-driven operational decisions. We hope the model we describe and our data can be of assistance in demonstrating that school buses can safely operate at normal capacity even at high community COVID-19 case loads.”

Previous studies have found that schools can safely roll back the social distancing rules for classrooms from six feet to just three. Scientists have also discovered that children not only experience more mild symptoms of COVID-19, but are also less likely to experience the lingering effects of “long COVID.”

The study appears in the Journal of School Health.