Getting Down with the Sickness on the Bug Bus

Colds, flu, stomach virus, hoof and mouth disease…

If there’s an illness known to man or beast, we school bus drivers will get it thanks to our daily contact with runny-nosed, sneezing, wheezing, coughing, chundering urchins.

(This blog is based on actual events, though names, places and some personal details have been changed to protect the innocent as well as the guilty and avoid libel suits.)

I hadn’t had the sniffles in years until I started driving my big yellow sickroom. In an uncertain world, one of the few sure things is the kid who is a fountain of mucus (or worse) will be the one who sits directly behind you and sprays all kinds of germy goodies your way.

Being stuck on a packed bus while you wait for the signal to unload your patients at their school is not one of life’s more pleasant situations. On the plus side, when half of your passengers are out with whatever’s going around, your job tends to be blessedly calmer and easier.

The first time a student heaves up some grub on your bus is a rite of passage and true milestone in this profession. Until it happens, you wonder how you’ll respond. I found out during an afternoon run when several eighth-graders in the back notified me that their pal Coggins had blown grits.

Swallowing my panic, I radioed to base that I was changing my route to drop poor Coggins off first. I was told by our dispatcher that a janitor would be waiting for me upon my arrival at Helga Poppin Intermediate for my next run.

“Great! I don’t have to deal with this mess myself!” I thought with tremendous relief only to be disheartened when just a mop and pail were waiting on the curb; no janitor or assistance as I’d hoped.

Fearing the worst, I crept to the back of the bus … and found no trace of tossed cookies. Then it occurred to me that the other students had been strangely calm. Usually, a meal in reverse will set off a panic and stampede away from the spill site.

“Could this have been a devilish ploy by Coggins to get home early?” I wondered. I wouldn’t put it past that rascal. His stop is one of the last on the run.

I later asked Wally, an honest eighth-grader who sits near Coggins, and was told the entire mess — from more of a severe belch than all-out yak — ended up on the front of the stricken lad’s shirt and one of his sleeves.

I’d dodged a messy bullet for sure, but I learned to keep a clean-up kit (gloves, regurgitation absorber, paper towels, plastic bags) on board.

The telltale sign of gastric calamity: A bus in the district compound, all doors open, mop and bucket by the steps, and a lonely driver forlornly removing the lost lunch.

“This is not worth $20 bucks an hour!” one of my unfortunate colleagues grumbled as he toiled away. A kid he’d told not to eat on the bus went ahead and did it anyway before ejecting some foodstuffs (what goes down, must come up) in a rather nasty firehose fashion.

Of all the challenges we drivers face, one of the most unwelcome is confronting a foul puddle while trying to steer revolted, near-hysterical kids clear and comfort the sick and embarrassed. I’ve gotten off easy. Another colleague drove a vomit comet that had three technicolor yawns on it in one week.

Another sure thing: Your first, “Hey Bus Driver, I think I’m gonna throw up!” will come when you absolutely can’t afford a delay. Trying to finish my afternoon runs on time, if not early, in order to make the 7 p.m. start of an Elton John concert two hours away, my heart (and stomach) sank when Ethel the middle schooler reported feeling green at the gills.

All I could do was hand her a plastic shopping bag, goose the gas, and pray. Fortunately, she kept her chowder down.

What Goes Around …

With sharing a way of life on a school bus, some of my colleagues have developed respiratory ailments that lasted for months and required multiple visits to the doctor and medication. The worst I’ve had (besides head colds) was a dry, wracking, whistling cough that tormented my wife for weeks whenever we tried to get some semblance of sleep.

My district says drivers should stay home when sick (actually sick, not angling for a day of fishing, as being left short-staffed gives our dispatchers agita). We must also beware of medications. Some cold remedies trigger a positive result in a random drug test. So unless I’m at death’s door, I soldier on with coffee and a stout supply of tissues. Maybe wearing cloves of garlic will help.

Coronavirus is naturally of concern to school bus drivers. Many of us are of ancient vintage (50+) and not in the best physical shape though we can’t be so crumbly we fail physical performance tests (timed exits from the bus; dragging a 125-pound sack that approximates a prone carcass). It’s important to be reasonably active as it is a sedentary gig, like a desk job with a steering wheel. Back and hip problems are common.

Unfortunately, I mainly get my aerobic exercise these days by shrieking at kids or running to the bathroom. Aggravation at least keeps the heart rate up and you can work up a nice sweat at the sight of what is going on behind you.

With coronavirus panic sweeping the nation, the kids on my bus were anxiously discussing it. Petunia the fourth-grader even had her headband across her face like a mask. I took the opportunity to tell them over the P.A. that I’d heard that the bug wasn’t affecting many children and they’d probably be just fine as long as they ate their vegetables, got plenty of sleep, did their homework and chores, and listened to their parents, teachers and, of course, their bus driver.

I was tempted to add, “The only sure way to catch coronavirus is by standing up while the bus is moving” but thought that might be pressing my luck with parents whose little loved ones came home and repeated what Mr. Driver had said.

When the kids’ chatter about coronavirus continued the next day, I got on the P.A. and said, “Hey, if you’re worried, you can tell your parents that we’re disinfecting the buses now.”

No one seemed to care or react.

“They’re not listening to you,” I was cheerily informed by Frieda the friendly fifth-grader nearby as the noisy, afternoon hijinks continued.

“So, what else is new?” I replied. “I’m a father. I’m used to kids not listening to me.”

I’m also used to kids getting sick on the bus and me getting sick right along with them.