Kids are back in school. What does this mean for Newport-Mesa’s bus transportation?

Students exit a school bus as they return to campus for their first full day of instruction at Adams Elementary School.
Students exit a school bus as they return to campus for their first full day of instruction at Adams Elementary School in Costa Mesa on Wednesday.
(Kevin Chang / Staff Photographer)

Students returned to full-day instruction in the Newport-Mesa Unified School District as recently as this Tuesday for secondary students and just last Wednesday for elementary students. With classes back in session, but the ongoing pandemic still necessitating social distancing and masks, district trustees on Tuesday night reviewed the impacts of COVID-19 on transporting some of those students.

Director of operations for the district’s transportation services Shelley Humphrey said state law requires school districts to provide transportation for special needs students, but they are not required to provide it for those in general education.

For the record:

10:19 a.m. April 29, 2021The story incorrectly stated that bus schedules were operating within educational cohorts, which divided groups of students into different days and times of attendance. As of April 21 and April 27, students returned to full-day instruction.

Newport-Mesa Unified has a total of 54 routes. Humphrey said that bus occupancies have had to be reduced to a maximum of 26 riders per bus — one passenger each seat — for a total ridership of about 1,378 students daily.

There have also been impacts related to reduced staffing and other challenges, including potential changes in the schedules for secondary school students.

Currently, the district is prioritizing those in special education, foster youth, homeless students and students who live outside of safe walk zones.

“We could not transport all of the students that we usually do [prior to the pandemic] and the district...has been very supportive of home-to-school transportation beyond mandated transportation,” Supt. Russell Lee-Sung told the school board.

“It’s very important that we ... are looking at this always from a district-wide perspective, not only in the short-term but the long-term as well,” Lee-Sung said.

District staff analyzed stops around Costa Mesa and Newport Beach for safety by walking from eliminated bus stops to the school sites, driving past the areas during school hours for safety and working with city staff to ensure crossing guards were in place.

Trustee Leah Ersoylu asked what schools had higher levels of ridership and trustee Michelle Barto also raised inquiries as to what the true ridership was as compared to the number of bus passes sold.

Trustee Ashley Anderson asked if distances between seats were three feet or six feet apart and if students who were siblings could sit next to each other. Lee-Sung said students are currently spaced at around 3 feet apart. Adding more students into seats could mean that distance is considerably reduced.

No action was taken during Tuesday night’s meeting to reduce or alter current bus routes.

Seating regulations may change in the fall, depending on where Orange County is by then, the superintendent noted.

The county is currently in the orange tier, but data from the Orange County Health Care Agency on Wednesday indicates the county is close to meeting the parameters to advance into the next tier. The adjusted daily case rate for every 100,000 residents needs to fall below 2 and is currently 2.6. The test positivity rate and health equity quartile positivity rate already qualify for the yellow tier.

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