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Report for America is a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms to report on under-covered issues and communities.

School Bus Drivers In Rockford Face The New Normal

Juanpablo Ramirez-Franco
Bus lot in Rockford

As COVID-19 positivity rates in Rockford continue to rise, school bus drivers are dealing with their new normal. 


Catina Barnett is president of the school bus drivers’ union Local 1275 in Rockford. And she’s coming up on her first anniversary in the role. 


“It's been quite busy. Without a doubt, very busy," she said. "Things have transpired from COVID taking out an entire world  to people being laid off from their job and the world coming to a standstill.”


Rockford Public School District has a hybrid learning model so far this year. That means some students are doing in-person classes and Barnett said being a school bus driver during a pandemic is stressful. 


“Like this morning, I had six students that came to the bus that didn't have a mask on,” Barnett said. "I had to dig it out [of] their book bag -- and then I had a couple of them that didn't have mask at all -- even in their book bags.”


Barnett said she is used to being the fun bus driver, but she also knows the new safety policies are necessary. Still, every day feels like an ongoing battle for kids. She said, “I feel I really feel bad that they have to do it.”


In the past, Barnett would reward the kids on Fridays by letting them pick where they wanted to sit for the day. Not anymore.


“We have contact tracing. So they have to stay in their assigned seat. They have to sit with their sibling. So now you have a fifth grader sitting with his kindergarten sister. You know he's frustrated because he wants to be with his equal, his peers,” Barnett said. “And she's looking at him like, 'Why do I even have to sit with you? I don't like you, you're my brother.”


Barnett said not all of the new protocols make sense to her.


“This particular year they want us to wait until all the schools have ran for that morning," she said. "Then clean the seats and wipe them down. I don't know if I agree or disagree with that one because you're taking on 15-20 kids per route. Then you're doing three schools. So now you put 60 kids without cleaning seats in between. I don't know if I agree or disagree -- I guess that's not my decision.”


But there’s one policy that Barnett said really frustrates her. She said that if, for example, “Little Susie's not assigned to your route, we can't take her. In years passed, if she wasn't assigned to your route and she went to your school, we take her in, and then we'll get her information that way. She's not left in a corner in a danger zone.”


But in order to comply with COVID tracing, bus drivers now have to leave that child on the corner and call in another bus to pick the child up. Barnett said she understands the need for safety but can’t help but feel heartbroken.


“Well, I can't even imagine the mindset of the child -- to know that he's being left on the corner to wait for another ride to come pick him up, because he can't be properly traced," she said. "And it's very frustrating.”


The District’s transportation department has confirmed these safety guidelines, but said that cases of children being left to wait for a new ride has only happened a handful of times. 


But the changes have also affected the paychecks of bus drivers. Barnett said she still remembers finding out the schools would close back in March. It was the Friday before Spring Break and over the dispatch radio she heard, “Hey, by the way, we're not coming back every spring break. We're getting ready to get shut down.” And she remembers thinking, “What, what? Even as union president I was like, 'What's going on?'”


Sara Dorner is a union rep for the school bus drivers’ union and the vice president of Rockford United Labor. She said it’s important to remember that, “These are drivers that have health insurance, they have benefits, they have a pension. So in March, when all of this broke out, our focus was keeping our members employed.”


Dorner said that luckily eventually the school board approved paying bus drivers their base pay through the end of the school year. But that was just the beginning. 


“So school support workers who are employed by a school system in Illinois do not typically qualify for unemployment during the summer,” said Dorner.


And that’s when it occurred to Barnett who said, "What do we do? And all of a sudden, out of nowhere, we said, 'Let's see if we get unemployment for the first time ever. Everybody else is doing it under COVID. Why not?'”


Dorner said that’s when she and the union began calling every lawmaker they could, because suddenly some 750 school support staff would be without work and without access to unemployment. They finally heard back at the end of May that yes, school support staff could file for unemployment for at least the summer of 2020.


But the way things are going in Winnebago County, Barnett is worried about her coworkers with a rising number of COVID-19 cases which she said threatens in-person learning. 


“I don't think we're going to make it past November," said Barnett. "That's my personal opinion. It is my personal opinion count. No.”


Regardless, Barnett will never stop fighting for her co-workers. 


“I will always fight for them to continue to get paid, without a doubt," she said. "Because without these guys, this system doesn't work.”


For now, she said her plan is to continue waking up each morning and getting behind the wheel to make sure she gets the students she cares about from Point A to Point B as safely as possible. 

  • Juanpablo Ramirez-Franco is a 2020 corps member for Report for America, an initiative of the GroundTruth Project which is a national service program that places talented journalists in local newsrooms.


Juanpablo covers environmental, substandard housing and police-community relations. He’s been a bilingual facilitator at the StoryCorps office in Chicago. As a civic reporting fellow at City Bureau, a non-profit news organization that focuses on Chicago’s South Side, Ramirez-Franco produced print and audio stories about the Pilsen neighborhood. Before that, he was a production intern at the Third Coast International Audio Festival and the rural America editorial intern at In These Times magazine. Ramirez-Franco grew up in northern Illinois. He is a graduate of Knox College.