New study examines COVID-19 transmission and student transportation ahead of new school year

Posted at 9:37 PM, Jul 28, 2021
and last updated 2021-07-29 10:59:19-04

VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. - After a virtual kindergarten year, Kaitlin Jensen's son, Jack, is getting ready for his first day of first grade in person.

“I know he’s going to love being in school,” Jensen said. “He’s excited about going to the school building. He’s been looking forward to this since he was a 'little' little kid.”

One thing they're confident about is Jack riding the bus to and from school.

“Everybody has memories of riding the school bus home. I know I do, and I want my child to have the same experiences,” she said. “As long as the kids are masking, I feel pretty comfortable with that.”

Last week, she and other parents got an email from Virginia Beach City Public Schools (VBCPS) saying in the interim through August 31 for all schools taking part in summer programming, in terms of transportation, all students and staff must wear face coverings while on buses regardless of vaccination status.

“I’m not too concerned at this point,” Jensen said. “That may change. If numbers get very out of control, then we might make the option of having him driven to school instead.”

Ahead of the first bell, a new study is digging deeper into COVID-19 transmission and bus transportation.

“There wasn’t much data out there about school buses,” Dr. Dana Ramirez, a pediatric emergency medicine physician with Children’s Hospital of the King’s Daughters, said.

Dr. Ramirez is also the lead author for the study, which focused on an independent school in Virginia that performed testing and used bus transportation for students throughout the pandemic.

“They were operating many of their buses at near full capacity, and so we thought it’d be useful to study just the bus passengers alone and see whether or not spread was occurring,” she said.

The school monitored more than 1,100 students from grades 1-12 with asymptomatic PCR testing every two weeks from August 24, 2020 to March 19, 2021, during the highest community transmission.

Fifteen buses served more than 460 students while operating at near capacity of two students in every seat, using a physical distancing minimum of 2.5 ft., universal masking and simple ventilation techniques.

Thirty-nine people were on buses during their COVID-19 infectious period, which resulted in 52 students being quarantined. Universal testing and contact tracing revealed no transmission linked to bus transportation.

Dr. Ramirez said she and others are pleased with the results.

“It gave us some comfort to know that there actually was a place that was able to operate with buses near full capacity without having transmission,” she said.

“The study was conducted prior to the Delta variant that we’re seeing right now,” Dr. Ramirez added. “I’m hopeful that those same strategies will continue to be preventive.”

The study also gives considerations, including using every row with assigned seating, seating siblings together where possible, universal masking and cracking windows for ventilation.

For Jensen, she hopes VBCPS consider these recommendations, as district officials expect to present a plan to the school board about the start of the new year in August.

Related: With Delta variant on the rise, some local parents not hesitant about kids returning to school

“It definitely makes me feel more confident in that choice,” Jensen said. “I know I have friends who are unsure, and I have faith that this is going to be good.”

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