DAVID FOLKENFLIK, HOST:
Another big question looming over the upcoming school year is how students will get there in the first place. That daily trek often requires getting on a crowded school bus and relies on a workforce of drivers like Teresa Keeton. Like Heidi Hisrich, the teacher we just heard from, Keeton also lives in Indiana, but she's from the southern part of the state. And she's been driving a school bus for 43 years.
TERESA KEETON: When I first started out, that was in the '70s. I had a five-speed transmission bus, and it had - it came with an ashtray and a lighter. And in between the routes, you would smoke cigarettes.
FOLKENFLIK: Keeton drove the bus every school day while raising her own children and getting herself through college. She ran her own businesses, continuing to pick kids up in the morning and drop them off in the afternoon. But, seeing COVID-19 cases surge in her area, Teresa Keeton decided she couldn't risk her health to continue the job she's held for four decades.
KEETON: Actually, it was one of the hardest decisions I've had to make in a long time.
FOLKENFLIK: Keeton will not be driving this fall, in part because of the school bus itself.
KEETON: It's like being in a big tin can, you know. And you've got all 40 kids and you and everybody breathing. Even with masks, that's a really enclosed spot. They say that the limit of kids on the bus would be 40 students. That would be two kids to a seat. And I would be wearing a mask. The kids would be required to wear a mask. And they're relying on the parents to take the child's temperature. But that first stop is going to be on the bus.
FOLKENFLIK: Districts across the country are planning a return to school with socially distanced classrooms and lower-capacity buses. But even with fewer kids on buses, many drivers are old enough that they're at a higher risk of contracting COVID-19, leaving school districts across the country with a bus driver shortage. Keeton says she knows other drivers in similar positions - cancer survivors or retirees not wanting to risk their own health - as school officials and community members come to realize the essential role bus drivers play in education.
KEETON: They can't teach them if we don't get them there. You know, when they have after-school activities, we take them home at night. When they have to go from school to school for activities, we get them there. Yeah. But the teachers and none of these people could do any of the things that they do if we didn't get them to the school. I've always kind of felt like we were taken for granted.
FOLKENFLIK: Even so, Teresa Keeton says when things calm down, and things return to normal, she plans to get back behind the wheel, four decades and counting. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.