Babies on the School Bus

Article expanded from version in SRN September/October 2011

This article originated in the September/October 2011 issue of Safe Ride News.

When considering school bus occupants, very young children like preschoolers, toddlers and infants don’t typically come to mind.   However, Nancy Netherland, Program and Design Management Specialist for Migrant Seasonal Head Start Training and Technical Assistance (MSHS TTA) reports that, of the approximately 35,000-37,000 children enrolled each year in the Migrant and Seasonal Head Start Program, more than half are under 3 years old, and some are as young as six weeks. Since approximately 67 percent of these young children are transported on school buses, this means that this program alone regularly transports more than 12,000 children each year who are 2 or younger.

Maggie Pondolfino, Infant and Toddler Specialist with MSHS TTA, indicates that there are also many children under three transported on buses due to enrollment in Early Head Start Programs.  Therefore, it is not surprising to Netherland and Pondolfino that a typical Head Start school bus is full of preschoolers, with half the riders under three years old and rear-facing infants occupying all of the first seating rows.

Although Head Start programs have been in existence for decades, federal regulations specifying safety requirements for how the children are transported to and from the program is relatively new. Head Start Transportation Regulation 45 CFR 1310 was phased-in over a five-year period beginning in 2001. By 2006, all Head Start programs providing transportation services were expected to be in full compliance.  Major components of the Federal Head Start Transportation Regulations include: a) Children must be transported only in a school bus or allowable alternative vehicle, b) Each child must be secured in a height- and weight-appropriate child safety restraint system (CSRS); and c) A minimum of one monitor, in addition to the driver, be on board.

Making it Work: A Minnesota Program Provides an Implementation Example

CPS Technicians Mary Johnson and Tami Northagen of Minnesota’s Tri-Valley Opportunity Council Early Head Start and Migrant Seasonal Head Start report that Tri-Valley transports approximately 300 infants and toddlers throughout the year, including those in Early Head Start and Migrant/Seasonal Head Start.  Early Head Start children are transported five days a week year round and Migrant/Seasonal Head Start children are transported during growing season.

According to Johnson and Northagen, Tri-Valley provides up to two monitors in addition to the driver, depending on the age and number of infants and toddlers on board.  To ensure that each child rides in a height/weight appropriate CSRS, a detailed seating chart, including the names of children and types of CSRS used, is created for each bus, and the seats are labeled with the child’s information. This system also helps monitors keep track of their small charges. Johnson and Northagen instruct drivers and monitors on selection, installation and securement of children in the CSRS.  Infants are weighed and measured every week and toddlers are weighed and measured regularly throughout the program year.  Adjustments to CSRS are made as needed.

Johnson and Northagen note that installing a traditional car seat, particularly a rear-facing one, can be a difficult challenge on a school bus.  The biggest problem is fitting the rear-facing CSRS in the fore-aft space allotted. In order to fulfill a school bus safety approach of compartmentalization, school bus regulations dictate the minimum and maximum allowed distance between bus seats, as measured from a designated “seating reference point” (SRP).  For a rear-facing car seat to fit, this spacing must be at or close to the maximum spacing allowed (24 inches) by the school bus seating standard FMVSS 222.   Unfortunately, this is not always the case on buses, which are often ordered with maximum capacity in mind, so seats are spaced much more closely together (the minimum spacing of about 19” from the SRP is far too shallow to fit a rear-facing CSRS).  Additionally, obtaining the correct recline angle for a rear facing CSRS may be difficult on a school bus due to their relatively flat, firm seat cushions.  Johnnson and Northagen have found that LATCH provides a good installation method for some rear-facing CSRS; however, not all buses have seats equipped with LATCH.  When seat belts must be used for installation, buckle-stalk length is often an issue; long buckle stalks can be replaced with shorter ones by a qualified mechanic to ensure proper fit of the CSRS.

Once the CSRS is properly installed, Johnson and Northagen train their monitors and drivers to look for loosening buckles and to fasten and tighten unused seat belts so children cannot play with them and hurt themselves or their fellow passengers.  Finally, Johnson & Northagen encourage drivers and monitors to get to know their passengers.  They find that a good, knowledgeable relationship between adults and the small passengers leads to seating assignments that work for pleasant and safe rides, efficient loading and unloading, and quick and efficient emergency evacuation.

Although federal regulations are clearly defined, Head Start programs benefit from the expertise of CPS Technicians, such as Johnson and Northagen, to properly implement them.  CPSTs who are also familiar with the intricacies of the school bus can be very helpful to ensure that infants and toddlers are properly transported.  Some Early Head Start and Migrant and Seasonal Head Start programs may have trained CPSTs on staff; others may need the help of a local CPST.  If you are familiar with installing CSRS on school buses and are interested in helping your local Head Start program, you may locate one near you by visiting their website.

—Betty Mason