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.
The first time a student heaves up some grub on your bus is a rite of passage and true milestone in this profession. Chances are, the first time you hear a “I think I’m gonna be sick” it will be when you’re already running late. 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 only 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. 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 — 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 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.
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. I once had a mysterious dry, wracking, whistling cough that tormented my wife for weeks whenever we tried to get some semblance of sleep. (It wasn’t COVID.)
My district insists that drivers stay home when sick (actually sick, not angling for a day of fishing), feeling symptoms that may be COVID, or after coming in contact with people and places that are possibly infected by the virus. If we aren’t vaccinated, we must be tested each week at our garage.
We must also beware of medications. Some cold remedies trigger a positive result in a random drug test. Ordinarily, unless I’m at death’s door, I soldier on with coffee and a stout supply of tissues. I’ve thought about wearing cloves of garlic, too.
COVID-19 is naturally of great concern to school bus drivers. Like me, many of us are of older vintage (50+). We all have to wear masks and keep everyone at least one row apart but having caught COVID at my summer job, I feel reasonably safe. Still, who knows with this bug? It’s sneaky and hits different people differently. (You can read about my COVID experience here.)
When the coronavirus pandemic began sweeping the nation in the winter of 2020, the kids on my bus were anxiously discussing it. Petunia the fourth-grader had her headband across her face like a mask. I took the opportunity to tell them over the P.A. they’d probably be fine as long as they washed their hands, 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” as a remedy for a constant problem.
“They’re not listening to you,” I was cheerily informed by Frieda the friendly fifth-grader as the noisy, afternoon hijinks continued.
“So, what else is new?” I replied. “I’m a dad. 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.