An often-forgotten job makes a difference before the sun comes up.
In February the American School Bus Council ramps up their continuous campaign to “Love the Bus,” emphasizing the hundreds of thousands of bus drivers who safely transport children to and from school, field trips, sports games and overnight events.
Drivers take the kid smells and high school couples’ long hugs goodbye at day’s end in stride, providing another touchpoint in students’ lives.
At 6:30 a.m. Joy Lacow-Swett’s bus 24 leaves the yard on Sherman Street. A drizzle and strengthening sunrise through the large windshield accompany us on the way to her first stop along a country road. As students start filling the bus, their chatter grows but not as much as in the afternoons when everyone isn’t so sleepy.
One child states the obvious yet an understandable point; it’s hard waking up early.
Steve Russell, director of transportation for Churchill County School District, reached out to the LVN with the bus ride-along idea, and dispatcher Gayle Webb provided a tour of the Transportation Department. Webb has been with the office for 18 months and coordinates a well-oiled department. She noted there are big shoes to fill with the prior dispatcher having served 20 years. I also met driver trainer Jamie Lara.
Webb highlighted the crew’s successes, noting stellar mechanic safety reports from Nevada Highway Patrol and great relationships with NHP, the Fallon Police Department, Churchill County Sheriff’s Office and Fallon Paiute-Shoshone Tribal Police.
First thing, drivers clock in and grab their keys off the numbered board, then get settled upstairs in their break space before heading over the workshop and down the stairs to the yard, where the mechanics already have bus lights blinking with safety-checks being done. The sight is both colorful and impressive.
Drivers have their own safety checklists and can also submit repair requests, logging their rig’s mileage and issues such as a cracked windshield or strange sound. There are spare buses if needed.
The diesel bus’ heater is on as we pick up Ms. Joy’s first students from a dairy farm.
She always says hello and sometimes more, and expects a response in return. Before long, conversations or hobbies are rolling, or homework pulled out. Riders talk about the recent father-daughter dance, puppies being born, whether their new sibling should be a boy or girl, what it’s like moving back from Winnemucca. One student crochets (she learned from her mom), a special needs child does puzzles on his iPad. Rain droplets sneak into the few cracked windows.
A NEW YEAR
Ms. Joy is going into her 15th year and drives the district’s southwest quadrant. She said she’s come full-circle having had a high school summer job washing school buses. She entertained the idea of driving cross-country with truck-driving but said this is the next best thing — considering the schedule, rotating chances to travel and being part of the Public Employees’ Retirement System.
“Every day’s a new day when driving a bus,” she said. “It’s a small community; this is a family.”
Ms. Joy tells students to sit down. She picks up the great-granddaughter of a bus driver. She sings a song she taught little ones to remind them to take off their heavy backpacks and place them in their laps. There are sometimes three young children to a seat, safe in the tall, compartmentalized seating cushioned for impact. She pulls over to let cars pass.
“It matters to me you’re safe,” she said, adding she will take on pet projects to help children who may be struggling. “That’s what makes it worthwhile, knowing you have a little hand in a student’s life.”
Ms. Joy discussed accidents few and far between and the extreme, laudable calm drivers have possessed. Almost six years ago drivers also assisted with transporting Amtrak accident individuals from the crash site.
“About this time of day, I look in my mirror and I’m so proud,” she said, admiring her riders all sitting down and getting along.
Ms. Joy talked about ways she tries to improve the ride as well as reach out, from assigned seating for elementary students to teaching lessons and holiday celebrations.
“You don’t need a college degree to step outside the box,” she said. “That’s what life is about, small things. … These are my babies while I have them. I strongly believe it takes a village.”
At the various school stops, students unload evacuation-style, remaining seated until it’s their row’s turn.
“Remember, guys, learn new stuff because you’re our future!” Ms. Joy called out.
We pass another driver and they wave to each other, Ms. Joy adding it’s Ms. Tina, who has over 40 years experience and is now retired and a substitute driver. Tina Grenamyer-Nickles often placed at safety rodeos where drivers compete in parallel parking, railroad crossing, alley docking and more. Ms. Joy also mentioned a driver, Toni Dalluge, who has been steering county roads since high school and already has a 30-year career.
How’s your day?
After a break, many drivers spend their midday hours working noon duty shifts at schools including helping with lunches. Seven-year CCSD driver Bob Summers said as he grows older he appreciates the short commute, his wife too.
“It’s a good job; I like it. It’s a really cool little community,” he said, mentioning the Stillwater scenery, seeing deer and having students say, “Hey, Mr. Bob!” around town.
Mr. Bob recalled a funny instance when a first-grader put glue on her lips, and he urged her comically to keep talking so they wouldn’t dry shut.
On Linda Diaz’s afternoon route — after her noon duty when she sometimes kicks around a ball with kindergarteners — she calls laughing, “Don’t lick the seat!” and “We don’t need to test the shocks.”
As students board, Ms. Linda lightly asks them questions about their day, softball practice, and does your water bottle have a whole lemon in it? She says she has two sets of twins who ride. A student asks her to turn up the radio.
Pulling away from the high school, a girl shouts to wait; one out-of-breath boy almost misses the bus. “I just saved your life,” the female student says. He nods smiling, “you did.”
Ms. Linda talks a bit about advice she gives.
“When your lips are moving, your ears lose their function.”
“Boys say certain things, you know? I try to tell them, ‘You know, girls really aren’t impressed by that.’”
Her route starts on Williams Avenue. Police wave. There are requested pit stops; tattles about kicking, eating food and personal space; talk of pig Latin and water irrigation; one student always needs a pencil from Ms. Linda as she helps him with his homework, every day.
“Ms. Linda, what’s your real name?” asked 5th-grader Gabe Ashbury in the seat behind the driver’s.
“Oh. I mean last name… Why do they do that?” Ms. Linda explained how it’s less formal that way.
“Would you rather I call you Mr. Ashbury?” she said. “Sit down, please.”
Gabe asks her to drop him at Banner Churchill Community Hospital as the bus passes by it; he can see his mom’s car (she works there) right there in the lot.
“You say that every day,” Ms. Linda said.
“Take me to Taco Bell,” he said a few moments later, joking, “I have a part-time job there.”
Ms. Linda and I smile at each other. She said she tries to be fun and understands if students are loud and fidgety, they’ve been in class all day.
“The rules were a lot different when I was a kid,” she said. “You mess up, the bus driver pulls over and tells you to get off, start walking.”
When it comes to weather and winter sports, she explained the buses have automatic chains but wind can be tricky. She also said grinning, kids don’t really care if there’s a bunch of ice on the road and you need to focus.
“I think sometimes they just need someone to talk to,” she said.
School nurses and principals work with the drivers if students are sick or have been fighting.
“They’re always looking out for the kids,” Ms. Linda said.
At the end of the route, she walks the bus and hangs the red flag in the back window to signal students are no longer aboard, that it’s just the driver. It helps in case of an accident and in Nevada, drivers cannot exceed 55 miles per hour on their route otherwise.
When asked what it’s like driving athletes to games, longtime driver Marsha Metz said proudly, “I tell them when they get on, we only haul winners; I try to set the tone.”
Back at dispatch, Webb expressed how grateful the team is to businesses like COD Garage, Fallon Floors and Huck Salt for allowing buses to pull off main roads when needed. She added the crew is always looking for more drivers.
School bus drivers are part of one of the largest and safest transportation systems in the world and, it’s safe to say, deserving of appreciation.
Maybe wear yellow today in honor.