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Back behind the wheel: Driving a school bus in a pandemic

Bus driver Deanna Howell says she gets nervous every time she hears a child cough or sneeze on her bus.

MANATEE COUNTY, Fla. — The debate over reopening schools is far from over.

In Florida, the state's highest court could soon weigh in after the Florida Education Association (FEA), the state's largest teachers' union won the first phase of its lawsuit. A judge sided with the FEA ruling that schools are not "safe," and reopening decisions should be left up to the local school boards.

The Florida Department of Education is appealing the ruling, and Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran intends to keep his emergency order mandating all schools in Florida open their doors by Aug. 31, in effect.

While teachers make up the majority of school district staffs, other workers also have concerns.

Bus drivers, custodians, and cafeteria workers are also on the front lines of education, ensuring children are transported, fed, and sitting in a clean classroom, a topic that has become the focus of reopening plans.

"I think everybody has some fear. There’s a fear factor but I really do believe the custodians because they are the ones behind the rooms cleaning after exposures. They are terrified," explained Deanna Howell, a bus driver in Manatee County.

In July, Howell was considering taking medical leave instead of going back to work. Her mother and daughter live with her, and Howell was scared of exposing them to COVID-19. Howell chose the eLearning option for her 14-year-old daughter, who has asthma.

RELATED: Bus drivers, custodians and service workers worried about catching coronavirus on the job

Howell said she comes in contact with no more than 50 students a day, and her routes keep less than 20 on a bus at a time, something she's grateful for especially with the new responsibilities.

"Making sure we enforce seating charts because God forbid there’s an exposure and someone gets sick, we have to know who’s within six feet, who is sitting with them, behind them, in front of them," explained Howell who also enforces masks and hand sanitizing along with conducting random temperature checks.

Howell, who hasn't seen students since April, said she loved seeing the kids but her day is far more stressful than it used to be.

"If a student coughs or sneeze, it’s like hair rises on your back, your neck because like oh my God, maybe it’s just a cold, but it’s just that thought. It’s frightening. It’s scary," she said.

Howell is a member of AFSCME-Florida, a union representing thousands of custodians, janitors, bus drivers, and other front line workers across Florida.

Last month the union called for "a responsible plan that minimizes the threat of the virus in our schools."

A spokesperson with the union said the same concerns and fears AFSCME had in July still exist today and sent this statement:

Last month, our union warned of the danger to students, faculty, and staff of reopening public schools without a comprehensive statewide plan in place to protect children and those who care for them in the public school system. The state continued on with wanton disregard for the health and well being of all involved and as we are seeing in county after county, their decision has led to further spread of this deadly virus and putting more lives at risk. This is simply unacceptable. As the union representing thousands of bus drivers, food service workers, and custodians in school districts across the state, we urge Governor DeSantis and Education Commissioner Corcoran to do more to protect employees and students.

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