Washougal, WA – May 15, 2020 — Washougal school bus driver, Dana Morris, rides in the front row of Bus 57 with Nancy McGuire in the driver’s seat for a typical Monday route. The bus moves along with eerie silence and empty seats, its only cargo is a box of manila envelopes and orange bags of educational materials for delivery. The role of Washougal school buses and their drivers may have changed dramatically since the school closure in mid-March, but their main function, to connect students with their education, remains the same.
Although many teachers and students can use online resources to connect and provide instruction and learning, this does not work for all families or lessons. “We have some families that do not have access to WIFI, and during the Stay at Home order are not able to drive to find a connection,” said Les Brown, Director of Communication and Technology. “Some teachers may be offering instructing with workbooks, and some families may prefer use of paper worksheets. We are working to meet the varying needs of all our students and making sure that Internet access is not a barrier to student participation. The district is also providing drive-up Wi-Fi at school sites, exploring service at meal distribution sites, and procuring hotspots to serve families who have no other options.”
“The kids really love that we are out here making deliveries in our buses and they love getting the chance to see us,” Morris said. “I think they miss the continuity of if all. Going out to meet the bus feels a little like the way things used to be for them.”
Using late start times, each Monday, regular bus routes are followed for Hathaway and Columbia River Gorge Elementary families. Tuesday routes serve Gause, Cape Horn-Skye and Canyon Creek Middle School. The Thursday routes make deliveries for Jemtegaard Middle School and Washougal High School students. One Wednesday the cargo on buses changes to meals. Prepared and assembled by food service employees, boxes include an entire week’s worth of food supplies. Approximately 6,000 meals each week are being delivered since the program started in early April.
Back at the bus garage, bays are filled with of boxes of bags and envelopes filled with learning materials for delivery each day. Teachers prepare unique packets for their class or even individual students. These packets then get sorted by bus route. Drivers and helpers on the bus organize them one last time for each stop.
“Organizing what goes on to each bus is a huge project each day,” said Transportation Manager, Jesse Miller. “Any given morning, we do not know how much will be arriving and how much room it will take to sort them all. Everyone is working hard, doing their job differently than in the past. I am proud of these employees.”
At the bus stops, there is often items being sent both directions. As families and students collect information sent from their teachers, they bring completed work and even library books to be returned to the schools and teachers. Online check out of school library books began in early April and more and more families are using the service to support and encourage reading.
Jen Patrick, mother to Columbia River Gorge Elementary students Anderson, 1st grade and Clive, 3rd grade, said it is extremely helpful to have the bus deliveries. “You go to the end of the block and grab what your students will need for the week ahead,” she said. On this day, the pick-up included library books.
CRGE parent, Lindsay Fick, agrees. “It is awesome to have the bus delivery each Monday to keep a routine for us,” she said. “On Sunday evenings the kids will remind me to not forget the bus tomorrow!” Cleary a highlight of the delivery for students Beau and Peri Fick is to see their beloved bus driver, “Miss Dana.” On this day they handed Morris two sweet, homemade cards to express how much they appreciate and miss their school bus driver.
“My kids and families on my route are great,” said Morris with a grin behind her protective mask. “They are so sweet to reach out and want to stay in touch. Our stops and deliveries may be the most interaction outside of their immediate family that these children will have all day.”