As the school year gets underway, and temperatures consistently rise into the upper 90s, school bus drivers are struggling to stay hydrated and cool.
"If you make it through August, you'll be all right," said Willie Covington, a driver for the Henry County School System.
Covington said the small fan near his driver's-side visor, and a bottle of water, must compete daily with sweltering temperatures and the hot bus engine just feet away from his steering wheel. He said he drives, anyway, because doing so is more than a job to him.
"It's interacting with the young men and having an opportunity to be an influence in their lives," said Covington.
"This is a job you have to love to do," interjected Billie Norman, a route supervisor with the school system's transportation department. Norman said she has been on a daily quest to hydrate school bus drivers on her Eagle's Landing route, as they spend up to five hours each day on the bus. She said the school system's transportation department traditionally provides drivers with bottles of water during their afternoon routes.
"We're trying to do it as many days as the county can afford to do it," Norman said. "A lot of our supervisors are starting to take up the cost."
Schools are taking precautions, as well, to stave off the ill effects of the hot weather. McDonough Elementary School canceled its recess on Aug. 4, according to Principal Gena Williams, who recalled that heat indices had spiked above 100 degrees.
"Whenever it's that hot — or that cold — we use our discretion to make sure we do what's best for the kids," Williams said. "If they do go outside, teachers will limit their students' time outside, especially for children who have asthma."
Students with severe asthma typically have their recess in the school's media center, she added, where they can read a book.
Student bus riders, however, must battle the elements when they make the hot afternoon school bus trip home. And those students could benefit from the additional hydration, said Cliff Shearouse, Henry's transportation director.
"We encourage the students to bring plastic water bottles that have secure twist-on lids so that they can drink water to stay hydrated while on the buses," Shearouse said. "We allow all of the windows to be down, and we allow the roof hatches on the top of the bus to be open, so that air can flow through the bus when it is moving."
For safety reasons, he said, the transportation department prefers that students do not use straws or cups with snap-on lids. The department does not allow glass or aluminum containers on the bus.
Clayton County Public Schools also will allow students to carry water bottles, but only those with twist caps, for use in the afternoon on school buses without air conditioning, said Clayton County Public Schools Spokesman Charles White.
"All special-education routes are served with buses with air conditioning," White said. "Our transportation officials have said Clayton County Public Schools became the first school district in the metro area to begin a full conversion of buses to air conditioning. [And] we have been phasing in air conditioning on our buses over the past three years."
White said Clayton County currently has 182 air conditioned school buses — 71 buses for regular education routes, and 111 buses for special education routes. The school buses are used by many of the 32,000 student riders in Clayton County.
Only a few of Henry County's more than 23,000 student riders have access to the 39 air-conditioned school buses, according to Director Shearouse. He said the school system is operating 329 school buses in its fleet of 349.
"We only have a few special-needs buses with air conditioning for those students who are medically inclined to have air conditioning," said Shearouse. "The current budget doesn't permit us to purchase needed buses, much less to retrofit or install air conditioning on all our buses."
The transportation director said adding air conditioning to school buses, at this time, would be costly. He said the average cost to retrofit a school bus with air conditioning is $9,000.
Still, there are precautions area residents can take to lessen the chance of suffering from heat-related injuries or having heat-related emergencies, according to Henry County Nurse Manager Jill Bolton.
"Don't be out in the heat for long periods of time, and drink plenty of fluids — water is your best bet," said Bolton. "You should also watch for any signs of heat exhaustion."
Information related to heat exhaustion and ways to prevent heat-related illnesses are available online at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's web site, at www.CDC.gov.