Manassas Park Transportation News
2020-2021 Pandemic Issue
A Year Like No Other
The 2020-2021 MPCS School Year kicked off unlike any other school year. For Transportation Department employees, that meant our regular in-service was split into two groups to allow for social distancing. It also included training on how to stay safe during a pandemic and recognize symptoms of COVID-19.
For drivers, attendants, and crossing guards, the first day of school this year did not mean crying kindergarteners on the bus or clusters of parents waiting anxiously at the stops for their children to arrive home safely. In fact, it did not mean transporting children at all.
Over the course of the school year, in-person learning was planned, started, halted, and then planned, started and halted again. Every school board meeting brought new news about the pandemic and its effect on our employees, our students, and the entire community.
But despite a virtual learning environment, our school bus drivers and attendants have stayed busy all year helping with tasks ranging from delivering school supplies and lunches to providing childcare for the children of MPCS employees.
On August 27, 2020, MPCS Transportation staff participated in the first of what would become many food markets, helping to deliver food from the Capital Area Food Bank to needy families across Manassas Park. Traditionally, this has been a job directed by Anne Shaw, Head Nurse for Manassas Park City Schools, and held at the High School, but this year, she needed some help to pull it off.
The day of the first Food Market, food was delivered by truck and offloaded on large pallets. From there, transportation employees divided the food into sections and set it out on tables in the wrestling room, and then bagged it up for families. Later, the food was loaded onto school buses and distributed to families at three different locations in the city. The following day, Ms. Shaw addressed and thanked the department for their efforts. We did not realize then that delivering food would become a regular part of our jobs.
“What you did yesterday was extraordinary,” said Ms. Shaw. “Yesterday, you did something. And didn’t you see in on their faces? It is the best thing we can do to feel better: do something for someone else. And yesterday you did. You took the Family Market on the road. You did something that matters. In a time when we could not come together to distribute food, you brought it to the community, which filled my heart.”
Anne said this has been a “tough time” for nursing and for the entire school division. “Not knowing, and not being able to count on anything is the hardest part,” she said. “The things we took for granted before, like going to the store, we can no longer take for granted.
“With the pandemic, the politics, the unrest, and everyone else going on, this was an opportunity to do something good. When I started this program six years ago, I set out to serve families with dignity. And I believe that is what we have done. What you did yesterday matters. You served parents and families with dignity.”
Anne said that food insecurity is her passion, and she expressed gratitude that transportation was able to take on the challenge. As far as future food markets go, Anne said the Capital Area Food Bank cannot make any guarantees, but she is hopeful.
Joanne Brathwaite was one of the drivers who took the Food Market on the road, and said it was “a great experience. I can’t wait to do it again.”
Little did she know, as the pandemic continued, she would do it again, and again, and again. At first, the food markets were driven into the community on buses, but as the number of positive cases in Manassas Park increased, the decision was made to return to the market to the school where better social distancing could be observed.
Lisa McMinn, who was working at one of the distribution stations, said that a community member who just happened to be walking by “saw what was happening, and just couldn’t believe it. She was so impressed. She thought it was amazing.”
Weekly Lunch Distribution
Many students and parents count on free or reduced cost school breakfasts and lunches to help supplement their food budgets. So as the reality began to unfold that students would be learning at home for the foreseeable future, school officials sought out the best way to deliver these meals to the students each week. In the beginning of the school year, these meals were loaded onto school buses which parked in various spots across the city where students could easily pick up their lunches.
“There were a few glitches the first day which we needed to work out,” said Patty, “but overall, the lunch program went really, really well.”
Suzanne Parks, who was driving Bus 35, was assigned Euclid and Lapaz, an area dense with children and typically very busy. “I am glad we were there,” said Suzanne. “Some of the cars were driving too fast and we had to remind them to slow down, that kids could be in the area.”
Craig Greene was assigned to the corner of Colburn and Adams. “I had a positive day,” he said. “I was working with Beatrice from Food Services, and we made a good team.”
Olga Anderson, who was assigned Sandstone and Cartwright, said that after a rocky start, she had a very good day. “I enjoyed seeing my kids again and their parents. I was so happy to be able to serve them lunch from my bus. And I enjoyed getting to know an employee from food services. She was sweet, hard-working, and very responsible.”
Unfortunately, when one transportation employee tested positive for the virus, a large percentage of the department had to be quarantined, and we had to rethink the system. Under ever-changing pandemic parameters, Greg Taylor, director of Food Services, experimented with various options and settled on a system which has enabled parents to quickly and predictably pick up meals each week, even in bad weather.
On the day before winter break, the schools handed out a total of 15,660 meals – in one day, two meals a day for each student for two weeks.
For those not helping with food delivery or braving more bus driver training, the first three months of school meant supervising the children of teachers and other staff members helping to make this year a success.
Vikki Davis, a childcare floater, said supervising the students off the bus was “an interesting experience. I am normally a school bus driver, and my involvement with children is limited to transporting them safely to and from school. In the childcare care settings in the schools, the staff was responsible for overseeing the students, including reminding them to wash their hands, stay six feet apart, wear their masks, and clean their work areas when they step away.
“The kids were well behaved,” she said, “but it was a little heartbreaking that they couldn’t interact with each other like they used to. It was sad to hear them say, ‘I just want to play with my friends,’ but they couldn’t, because we are in a pandemic. I am looking forward to life going back to a new norm. I want to be back on my bus.”
For many staff members, the change from driving a bus to working in a childcare setting was huge. Carlin Cano, a school bus attendant, was assigned to work with students grades 3 through 5.
“It was fun,” she Carlin. “I enjoyed being able to be there for them, helping them sign on and get to their classwork. We also had the chance to take them outside to walk around on the path. We kept our social distance, but we let them get some of their energy out. For a few of the children, this type of virtual learning is a little challenging because it requires them to stay still for so long. But we encouraged them to stay focused, and sometimes gave them a little break.”
Another program transportation took on during the 2020-2021 school year was the Nourishing Ninjas. Nourishing Ninjas is a backpack food program that sends home gallon-size Ziploc bags filled with non-perishable food items once a week to students in need of a little extra nourishment during the week or on weekends.
Unlike the school lunch program, Nourishing Ninjas is a community effort. Donation include items such as juice boxes, individual cereal bags, individual mac n' cheese packs, pop-top canned pasta, and pop-top soup.
From the Director
“In times like these where we are unsure of how tomorrow will look, it is important to take stock in those around you to find good in others by helping where we can,” said Patty Hurley, Transportation Director. “My team continues to step up and offer their skills and kindness to do our part. The pandemic has allowed us to appreciate what we have instead of taking each day for granted. Looking back a year ago, who would have thought we would experience the restrictions and changes we have been part of this year?
“Helping the students and the community here in Manassas Park to get through this difficult time is our pleasure and our focus,” she said. “Don’t misunderstand me; I can’t wait to get back to some form of the past, but hopefully we have all learned from this pandemic that nothing is promised. Everyone needs a little extra help at times and the transportation department stands ready and excited to do our part, whatever that may entail.”
Once a week, all drivers are required to fully inspect their bus, note any issues, and run it down the parkway. Especially for buses equipped with a diesel particulate filter, this is an important step towards keeping the vehicles in good working order.
“It is important that the buses be run at least once a week,” said Aaron. “It keeps the battery charged. It also alerts me to any leaks that may have developed or other issues that we need to take care of before we go back to school.” Drivers are also required to maintain state inspection mandates, even if no students are riding the bus at this time.
Air Filtration Systems
When it became clear that the coronavirus was not going away anytime soon, the decision was made to install HEPA air filtration systems on the buses. HEPA stands for High Efficiency Particulate Air, and is also known as High Efficiency Particulate Absorbing or High Efficiency Particulate Arrestance.
To meet the HEPA standard, a filter must be able to remove at least 99.97 percent of particles from the air whose diameter is equal to 0.3 micrometers. Micrometers (also called microns) are used to measure very, very small things. A strand of human hair is about 70 microns. A red blood cell is about 8.
HEPA filters were developed during World War II by scientists who were looking for a way to capture radioactive particles released during the creation of the atom bomb. After the war, the filters became commercialized and were purchased by companies that required contamination control, such as manufacturers of disk drivers, medical devices, food and pharmaceutical products, as well as hospitals, homes and cars.
Since then, they have evolved considerably and become standardized.
Not surprisingly, Manassas Park is one of the first districts in the Northern Virginia area to equip its buses with this technology.
“The system we are installing is made by ProAir,” said Aaron. “It is a ProAir Filtration Unit, a HEPA filter with a UV Filter light inside that kills bacteria and viruses in the air. It sucks in the air, cleans it, and pumps it back out.” When used in conjunction with surface cleaning and sanitizing, the ProAir system will help in eliminating harmful airborne particles.
But because each bus is different, installing the filters proved to be a challenge. “Each bus is different, and the filter doesn’t always fit the way the manufacturer put it together, so we have had to drill holes and make our own patterns.”
Dave Cornwell has been assisting Aaron, and together, the team has just about finished the job, just in time for next month’s back-to-school hybrid rollout. “Once we figured it out, it moved along a little more quickly,” said Aaron. “Now we have people from other districts and Kingmor wanting to come out and see what we have done.”
Will this new school bus feature require additional training for our drivers?
“Not really,” said Aaron. “There is just a switch that will be added to the control panel. You turn it on when you get on the bus and it runs, and then turn it off at the end of the shift.”
Of course, having the HEPA filter on the bus does not mean you don’t have to follow other safety protocols. Handwashing and hand sanitizing is still the best way to stop the spread of germs, and, of course, wearing a mask and practicing social distancing.