FORT WORTH, Texas — Will Martinez is tired of waiting. The bus driver for the Fort Worth Independent School District has been waiting since March to hear any information about the upcoming school year and his job. He waited for the district to announce a start date for in-person school, only to have that day moved back by county order. He is waiting to hear how the district will keep him safe from COVID-19.
A plan recently released by the district, he said, doesn’t inspire confidence. He and the district’s other hourly employees still want to know what day they can show up to work, and what their jobs will look like once they do. More than anything, the father of two girls is waiting for his next paycheck.
Martinez hasn’t been able to collect unemployment because the school district asked him to sign an intent-to-return-form after last year. Because he’s paid hourly, he doesn’t receive a paycheck if he doesn’t work. The veteran school bus driver has been frustrated by the district’s lack of communication and plan for how to get a portion of the 90,000 students who attend school in FWISD into the classrooms.
“My anxiety is pretty high,” he said. “I’m pretty frustrated. For one, all you hear in the news is about the teachers. Kids still have to get there, and [the district] hasn’t said anything regarding transportation.”
Last week, Fort Worth ISD released its fall 2020 eduction plan, which includes safety protocols for employees. Martinez and other hourly employees said they feel overlooked. The document, they believe, doesn’t go into enough detail about their jobs, nor does it make them feel safe to return to work.
The plan says drivers and riders are required to wear PPE. There’s also vague promises that “efforts will be made to increase the ventilation on the bus;” and that “A/C filters will be replaced frequently,” as opposed to once a year, which has been the case before now. Missing from the plan, Martinez said, are key details about how kids are supposed to remain socially distant on a bus.
“They’re wanting us to cram the maximum capacity the buses can have,” he said. “So we’re getting up to 72 kids – three people to a seat – and transporting them at the max? Really it doesn’t work when you’re looking at middle and high school kids. They’re not small people.
“They have no plan,” he continued. “I’ve asked my director specifically, and he says ‘Well, we don’t know. We’re going to have meetings.’ A few weeks later, ‘We still don’t know anything.’ I don’t know who is making the decisions. There’s nothing being told to us at all.”
Even the little information in the plan that includes protections for bus drivers, Martinez said, doesn’t seem doable.
“The heating and air conditioning on a school bus is a closed system,” he said. “It’s like being in your car and just having the air on recirculate the whole time. The only time you’re going to get fresh air is when you’re opening the door.”
According to Clint Bond, a spokesperson for FWISD, the district employs roughly 350 bus drivers, and administrators have been in contact with 95 percent of last year’s crew. The number of routes within the district is still up in the air until administrators know how many students will be attending in person versus learning remotely. The district is always hiring school bus drivers, he said, and not even the pandemic has curbed that demand.
Last year, Martinez said, FWISD was short about 120 drivers, which forced each person to take on more routes.
Before this week, schools had planned on opening campuses for in-person learning on Aug. 17. Bus drivers were told to report to work on Aug. 7. On Tuesday, county judge Glen Whitley ordered the opening date pushed back to Sept. 28. After repeated calls to his supervisor, Martinez said he was told the district still expects him to be at work on Aug. 7 – though that could change at any moment.
“So you’re going to possibly have 300 people sitting around on a lot?,” he said. “A lot of the bus drivers are older, with higher risk [for COVID-19]. They haven’t told us anything. We’re in the dark.”
A person with intimate knowledge of the district’s inner-workings, who spoke to Spectrum News on the condition of anonymity, said FWISD is trying to find other jobs within the district for school bus drivers, so the schools don’t lose them. Drivers, the source said, are always in high demand.
In an exchange with the wife of an employee on Facebook, Fort Worth ISD Board Member Tobi Jackson hinted that drivers and other staffers would be used.
“Obviously, people who work in a school district have more than one talent,” she said. “If I’m a campus monitor, I may be able to do another very-needed job during COVID, like home checks. If I’m a bus driver, I may be able to do another very important job like calling students and checking on them … The district is working to deliver solutions.”
Questions about health insurance, sick leave, and other COVID-related concerns still loom. Bond pointed out some employees may be eligible for the Families First Corona Virus Response Act but would need to consult with human resources to confirm their eligibility.
Amid the yo-yoing opening dates, increased politicization of how schools should handle the pandemic, and the creation of new policies and safety protocols on the fly, Martinez said he feels forgotten, and that his safety and livelihood are afterthoughts.
“I’m not the only one,” he said. “There are hundreds of people going through these same things. That’s what’s frustrating to me."