A few weeks ago, Press Publications received a letter from a bus driver in School District 624. The letter, from Daniel Giossi, was about his experience as a bus driver for White Bear Lake Area Schools.
The letter read, “Over the years I’ve had many kids on the bus. Some, of course, more introverted than others. With the very limited time I have, I try to be friendly, learn names and work to get them out of their shell.”
Giossi’s letter went on to describe a kindergartner this year who was filled with confidence, smiled and called him by name. Giossi loved seeing his kids on the bus, but with so many who are now studying from home, it’s been harder for him to check in with them, provide support or interact with both the kids and parents in the community.
He hopes the kindergartner he knows won’t crawl back into her shell.
Among many of the worries that parents are facing amid the pandemic are concerns that their children will regress in their education and social skills. There’s also the worry of how different industries and employees, including school bus drivers, are handling the sudden shift to at-home learning. The bus drivers who transport Centennial and White Bear Lake Area school students are doing their best to stay positive.
“Last spring COVID-19 hit, and our spring break went on all summer. Aside from delivering meals, I had extra time to work in my garden,” Giossi said.
Giossi noted that he is still working, delivering meals and driving kids who are having trouble with distance learning, but much has changed.
“School started in September with a hybrid model. This left us with far fewer passengers but more training, mostly with (personal protective equipment) and cleaning the bus after each group,” Giossi said.
And, like employees in other industries, they have faced new challenges.
“The obvious ones are extra training, dealing with PPEs and all the extra cleaning. Not so obvious is the unknown. Things change so fast no one knows. Management does the best they can, but even they can’t tell you what they don’t know,” Giossi said.
Giossi’s school district is not the only one experiencing these new challenges. A driver and an aide from Rehbein Transit Company Inc., which serves Centennial Schools, described this year as less structured as before.
“With school on and off, we are a bit discombobulated,” Betty Baily and Cheryl Edberg told Press in an interview.
Edberg has been a driver with the company for six years, Baily has been an aide for four. They said they are taking whatever routes they are assigned to and are grateful for them.
“We love our kids, and we are never sure how long or which ones will be there tomorrow. Everything seems so up in the air,” Baily said.
One of their biggest challenges is ensuring the young kids wear their masks properly, but they’ve found creative ways to encourage this.
“With the variety of masks, it's a way to engage them. We get them singing songs, we have some toys for some that need to feel comfortable,” Baily said.
Despite the pandemic, drivers in both the WBLAS and Centennial school districts are doing their best to continue to engage with the kids on their routes.
“Most interactions happen when kids enter and leave the bus, so I still talk with the kids that ride but just as they pass. Kids are no longer allowed in the front seats, so talking while waiting to leave school is difficult,” Giossi said.
And although this year has been hard, Giossi has seen his efforts impact the lives of children over the years, so he continues to engage as best he can.
“One young lady had some emotional issues. She would sit quietly in front with her brother. This gave me the opportunity to talk with them before we left school in the afternoon. Over the course of driving them three years, she learned to trust me,” Giossi said.
They had some nice talks, and he will always remember them. Outside of encouraging his students and bringing them out of their shells, Giossi also has experience helping them cope during stressful situations with his other positions.
“Everything breaks down, even buses. A middle school bus broke down while a hurricane was slamming Florida. While waiting for another bus, I explained how storms like that happen. Kids told me I should have been a teacher,” Giossi said.
Another example of his success at encouraging his young charges was when shortly after leaving the elementary school with a nearly full bus — including 11 kindergartners — the bus broke down after just two stops.
“I was very worried that these kids would get scared and start crying, etc. Instead, they had a ball. The next day one young man asked if we could do it again. Can’t say, but I like to think I had something to do with them staying comfortable,” Giossi said.
“There are always some challenges in dealing with kids. None (of the children) are perfect, but we treat them as if they are as much as we can. We are a team on our bus,” Edberg said.
As with everything during this pandemic, the return to school, bus rides and normalcy are unpredictable.
“Until there’s a vaccine, COVID-19 will continue to change everyone’s lives. I don’t know if we’ll be going back to school this school year or not,” Giossi said.
Until then, the drivers will continue to do what they love in the best way they can, while keeping the kids on their routes safe.