The past 18 months have shed new light on some of the most underrepresented positions in society.
At the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, fast-food workers, grocery store clerks and stockers, and convenience store attendants were quickly recognized as “essential personnel.” The world, for the first time in most of our lives, literally shut down. The question of how we were going to maintain our lives working from home was quickly answered by those who continued working “at the office,” so to speak.
Drive-thru food options made a quick, hot meal readily available. The grocery store aisles, barring toilet paper, stayed pretty stocked for the most part. We were able to fill up our gas tanks or run to the corner for a gallon of milk.
The most overlooked jobs were suddenly recognized for what they’ve always been: our lifeline. No grocery stores equals no food.
Like so many things in America, our appreciation for and debt of gratitude to people in these professions quickly waned. Whether science said it or not, American culture decided the pandemic was over. Politicians swooped in with propaganda ranging from patently false claims that the virus wasn’t real at all to fear-mongering assertions that we will all need to live in self-isolating bubbles for the rest of our lives.
The pendulum has only swung to extremes. And instead of taking on the modest advice given us by health and science experts, some pockets of society have obediently gathered in one of the two corners.
With the political chaos, social media frenzy, and mixed messages from just about every avenue, most of America just decided to go back to normal. Right or wrong, that’s where we are.
Our kids are back in school. Most of us are back at work. Effective vaccines are available but not mandated. Masks are acceptable but not seen as necessary. And COVID-19 cases and deaths are running high.
Much has changed over the past 18 months when it comes to our response to and tolerance for the pandemic. Some of those changes are vital and necessary. Our kids have to be in school. The workforce needs to be at work. The economy has to be open. No question about it — those things are absolutely vital.
Some of those changes, though, aren’t vital or necessary. In fact, they are detrimental.
There are several to name but the one that has become increasingly apparent is our collective measure of respect for those who kept us going during the most ambiguous and difficult periods of the pandemic.
In the early stages of the pandemic, like those workers mentioned above, teachers were given well-deserved kudos for the pivot to virtual learning. It wasn’t perfect but it was a best effort from some of society’s hardest working figures. Once schools reopened, so much of that appreciation quickly evaporated into mask wars and angry rants over quarantine periods.
The resurgence of appreciation was clearly over.
Another example? Bus drivers.
With the frenzy to get kids back in school the question of how exactly to get them there has been a seriously stressful hurdle. Bus drivers were in short supply before the pandemic. Now that supply is even more limited. And as bus driver Ken Balogh recently pointed out to a Chronicle reporter, the district isn’t necessarily doing themselves any favors in filling the gap.
He credits the shortfall to a combination of pay dissatisfaction, poor public perception, and just the daunting idea of being responsible for a bunch of kids on a bus. But the biggest factor, he says, is an inconsistency in school administration’s support in disciplining students who misbehave on buses.
He nailed it.
In order to keep kids in school, they need a way to get there. Buses are essential in that process. Balogh says that disciplining students by suspending them from the bus undercuts the goal of student attendance. As a result, the consequences for misconduct, which are handled by individual school administrations, are inconsistent.
That’s a cause for serious headaches when it comes to a driver’s authority on his or her route.
People want to be respected. The quickest way to undermine that sense of value is to strip them of authority in the places they are supposed to have it.
If school administration doesn’t back up bus drivers and enact consistent discipline for misconduct while riding the bus, students will not view the authority of the bus driver as pertinent.
We just can’t have that.
I’ve heard of districts in some states that have dropped to a rotation of four days a week of in-person learning and one day a week of virtual learning so that there are enough drivers to get everyone to school. I’ve also heard of districts paying parents to take their kids to school to alleviate the number of kids who need to ride the bus. Fewer kids equals fewer buses equals fewer drivers.
Citrus County isn’t in that boat and we don’t want to be. But the only way to keep it from happening is for bus drivers to feel respected and valued in their jobs. We need to treat them with that level of respect we had for grocery store clerks early on in this pandemic; recognizing the absolutely essential service they provide and how valuable they are to our educational process.
But more than that, we must be willing to hold kids accountable for their behavior when riding the bus. That means that districtwide there should be a clear standard for behavior with clear and unwavering consequences for falling short.
Our bus drivers need to know that the public and their school administrations support them in the work they do. It is essential for our kids to be in school. But we also need our kids to learn how to respect authority and how to deal with the consequences of misbehavior. That is equally essential.