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(PHOTOS) Campbell bus drivers prepare for wherever their routes take them

Part teacher, part security guard and part ship captain, a bus driver has the power to make a difference in a child's life.

Melissa Greenwood (Mary Stroka/County 17)

GILLETTE, Wyo. — Part teacher, part security guard and part ship captain, a bus driver has the power to make a difference in a child’s life.

With that power comes responsibility.

Debbie Welch, a special needs bus driver trainer, reviews how bus drivers can help bus riders be the best versions of themselves. (Mary Stroka/County 17)

Campbell County School District Assistant Supervisor of Transportation Melissa Greenwood is leading a fall refresher course this week for the individuals who make a job that requires rapt, constant attention to detail seem simple. Instructors on Oct. 5 conducted six stations that drilled employees on various skills like managing children, taking care of the bus, safely crossing railroad tracks and responding to emergencies.

Bonnie Delaney, a bus driver and trainer, reviews with bus drivers how to ensure tires are safe to drive on and what to do if they are not. (Mary Stroka/County 17)

Special needs bus driver trainer Debbie Welch, who led the station on behavior management, said that when children misbehave on the bus, it is wise for bus drivers to de-escalate the conflict. Sometimes that means interrupting what seems like an inappropriate conversation among students by changing the subject. Students may not respond well if a bus driver tries to exert authority.

Bonnie Delaney, a bus driver and trainer, led drivers through how to quickly check tire pressure.

Each bus driver carries a tire thumper of their choice that they use to test tire pressure, Delaney says. (Mary Stroka/County 17)

She said bus drivers each keep their own tire thumper, which could be anything from a baseball bat to a wooden mallet. The key is listening to the sound the thumper makes when it strikes the tire. One older bus driver even uses a golf club.

Kazrin Wilson takes a turn at the wheel to practice brake tests. He and his wife, Melissa Lowe, are both bus drivers. (Mary Stroka/County 17)

Marcella Baumgert, who said she began working as a bus driver this past spring, was among those who took a turn practicing for the brake test. She said drivers complete the test every time they leave the bus yard.

Bus driver trainer Karen Kopelcheck demonstrates what bus drivers need to check in the engine, which is at the back of the bus. (Mary Stroka/County 17)

To ensure the bus is safe and comfortable for each rider, bus drivers also inspect the engine, lights, seatbelts, seats and more. Bus drivers need to be prepared to properly clean up and sanitize the bus if a student gets sick.

Kopelcheck examines a seatbelt cutter. (Mary Stroka/County 17)

They must be prepared for emergencies, too.

Janice Hauber, who has been a bus driver for 44 years, said that while buses are built to be safe, they are ultimately safe because of bus drivers. If there were to be a fire on a bus, the bus driver has two minutes to get every passenger off the bus before the bus is fully engulfed in flames. They need to make a split-second decision of whether a fire is small enough to be instantaneously put out. Like ship captains, bus drivers should be the last one off the bus if there were to be an emergency evacuation.

Janice Hauber, who has been a bus driver for 44 years. (Mary Stroka/County 17)

She said part of preparing for the worst-case scenario is teaching children how to use the bus’s emergency safety features, including the PA system, door release, hood latches and parking brakes, since the bus driver might not always be able to help. Both substitute bus drivers and full-time bus drivers must practice conducting bus evacuations at least twice a year, and it is wise to perform them more frequently.

Bus drivers are never alone, however, she said. People who see that a school bus is in trouble want to help, and they will show up.

Hauber says bus drivers should prepare their students to be able to open the doors in case of a fire or other emergency. (Mary Stroka/County 17)

The district has 115 permanent routes, which permanent and substitute drivers partner on to ensure children get to school every day. While the district has about 120 bus drivers and about 180–200 transportation department workers, it is almost always hiring and training more drivers. About 12 drivers are currently training. The department has given a now-permanent emergency pay increase and a retention bonus to reduce turnover.

Depending on the route, the bus driver’s time commitment is roughly 6–9 a.m. and 2:30–5:30 p.m. on weekdays. Some rural routes start earlier. Drivers receive benefits since workdays above six hours are considered full-time.

The district has 115 permanent routes, which permanent and substitute drivers partner on to ensure children get to school every day. (Mary Stroka/County 17)

The Wyoming Department of Education advises school districts where bus workers can drive and have stops. There are regulations for how far students should have to walk to a bus stop. The school district can make community stops on designated street corners in closer-knit neighborhoods, which reduces the amount of time students need to be on the bus. Rural areas often have door-to-door stops. The district tries to keep bus rides shorter than an hour.

Greenwood said that she has noticed that families may not realize that in a bus schedule, every minute counts. Many parents call asking for “just one more minute” for their student who is getting ready for school, but an extra two minutes for one student and an extra minute and a half for the next student add up.

“By the time we get to the end of the route, you could potentially have a student standing outside for an extra five to seven minutes, maybe in the cold,” she said.

Greenwood said she believes people become bus drivers because they want to make an impact on children. The bus driver is often the first person, besides family members, whom a child sees in the morning. Many students believe they can confide in their bus driver.

“We have some drivers that actually know what sports their kids play and then will go watch their games,” she said. “You get to know your kids and love your kids. A lot of them really end up caring about their kids.”

Some people become bus drivers because they like the hours. Many parents like that their work schedule meshes with their child’s school schedule. Others are retirees who want to keep busy in a job that is not as demanding as another job may be. While bus drivers can choose to adopt additional duties and gain more hours, the minimum job requirements are not grueling work.

The U.S. Department of Transportation will celebrate National School Bus Safety Week Oct. 16–20.