Bus drivers allowed to pull down masks when driving

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“Wear your mask.” “Stay six feet apart.” “Keep everyone safe.” Americans have heard these commands on repeat for the past 11 months, with health officials practically begging the public to follow them.

By Ben Shapiro, Staff Reporter

“Wear your mask.” “Stay six feet apart.” “Keep everyone safe.” Americans have heard these commands on repeat for the past 11 months, with health officials practically begging the public to follow them. COVID-19 guidelines have been implemented everywhere, and it is expected to wear a mask when around others to stay safe. That is, unless you are a bus driver.

For multiple school districts in Pennsylvania, the pandemic had grim consequences for transportation departments. The Perkiomen Valley School District had to halt busing services after a bus driver died and more than 25 other drivers and bus aids tested positive for COVID-19 on Feb. 1, according to NBC10 Philadelphia. Likewise, the Hatboro-Horsham School District paused its busing services on Feb. 3 because more than 20 staff members, roughly 25% of the transportation staff, were out of work due to positive cases and mandatory quarantining, according to 6ABC News. Despite the growing number of COVID-19-positive bus drivers across the state, the T/E Transportation Department still says that “when drivers are facing forward, driving, they may pull their mask down for safety reasons.” 

“Every student is close to the bus driver when they’re on the bus. (When the driver) doesn’t wear a mask, it doesn’t feel safe,” said Nathaly Sanchez, a freshman currently signed up to take the school bus. 

The CDC agrees with the executive order President Biden published on Jan. 26 (Executive Order No. 13998), which states that everyone must wear a face mask to keep themselves and those around them safe. The CDC states that face masks are “required to be worn by all travelers while on public transportation. People must wear masks that completely cover both the mouth and nose.” However, it makes an exception for bus drivers saying that “masks should not be worn if their use creates a new risk.” 

Using the ambiguity surrounding the words “new risk” in the CDC’s statement and the executive order, many transportation departments have adapted their mask-wearing policies to be optional for bus drivers. The safety policy of one of TESD’s bus contractors, On The Go Kids, states, “Masks must be worn by drivers and aides when onboard the vehicle.” One sentence down however, and the “new risk” interpretation changes the meaning of the statement in its entirety. The safety policy furthers, “masks can be removed by driver when driver is seated in (the) driver’s seat.”

Krapf School Buses, TESD’s other bus contractor, does not acknowledge mask-wearing in its policy. Stating, “Drivers and monitors are provided with PPE,” the policy excludes the part with real impact — wearing the mask.

“Unless (bus drivers) have problems with their glasses fogging up — because that’s an actual danger — I would say they should be required to (wear a mask) because we’re in a pandemic,” said Elise Turner, a freshman who is also signed up to take the school bus.

On The Go Kids’ safety policy acknowledges this, citing the fogging of glasses and the impediment of vision for why mask-wearing is optional for bus drivers. While Turner recognizes this concept, she explains that there are many ways to get around this visibility issue without putting people at risk.

“If a driver doesn’t wear glasses, they (should be required) to wear a mask,” Turner said. “There are things that you put on the lenses of your glasses so that they don’t fog up; there is spray for that, and it’s $5. I’ve seen people driving around in their cars with masks on with glasses, so I know it can be done.”

Disagreeing with Turner, one bus driver for Conestoga High School who wishes to remain anonymous believes that she shouldn’t have to wear a mask while driving. Maskless during the in-person interview, the driver claimed that students cannot catch COVID-19, saying that they would rather not wear a mask at all.

“I still think (the buses) are safe because I don’t think the kids are carrying (COVID-19). They are young and strong and vibrant; they aren’t going to carry the virus. I have no problem with (driving during a pandemic),” the driver said. “I would drive with no mask on if I could, but I can’t. I can’t breathe when you put it on my face.”

While drivers do not have to wear their masks while driving, they are required to put a mask on when students enter and exit the bus. The bus driver quoted was referencing the latter part of the rule when they made the claim about not being allowed to drive without a mask on.

Knowing the devastating effects of not wearing a mask, Wayne Memorial Hospital surgeon Dr. Lisa Medvetz, Fellow of American College of Surgeons, disagrees with the driver’s beliefs and the mask policy ambiguity. She explains that people can wear masks properly without any negative side effects, calling the exclusion of bus drivers from the mask mandate to be concerning and irresponsible.

“I’ve worn masks daily since I started my residency in 1994, and my wearing a mask has never once impeded my ability to operate on somebody,” Medvetz said. “The mask covers your nose and mouth. Anatomically, their rationale (that masks impede vision) is idiotic.”

Agreeing with Medvetz, Sanchez believes that the policy allowing bus drivers to remove their masks is not acceptable.

“I can’t remember a time where I have worn a mask and have had trouble seeing. It’s not right for (the policy to allow) bus drivers to not wear masks,” Sanchez said. “They need to be wearing masks. We are in a pandemic.”

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