SAN DIEGO (KGTV) -- School districts across San Diego are adjusting schedules and creating new rules for students who ride the bus.
"I liken it to the wild west," says Tysen Brodwolf, the transportation director at Cajon Valley Union School District. "Everybody was really making this up as we went along."
Cajon Valley has had students on campus since August. The number of bus riders has steadily risen over the year, to approximately 600 now. That's still down from the pre-pandemic number of around 1,300.
Other districts across San Diego have seen similar drops in number.
The San Diego Unified School District was transporting around 8,000 students every day before the pandemic. As they reopen this week, they anticipate only 45% of those kids to use the bus, based on survey responses from parents.
The Grossmont Union High School District, which reopened in-person learning in the fall, offers bus services to 684 riders. They had 1,400 riders before the pandemic.
But GUHSD Superintendent Theresa Kemper says transportation is vital, no matter how many kids they serve. She says it's especially important during the pandemic while family schedules are constantly changing.
"It's been really difficult for families to establish home routines," says Kemper. "It might be easier now for them to say, you're on your own to walk to the bus stop, get to school and get home."
Beyond dealing with dwindling numbers, administrators had to find ways to keep the buses safe from COVID-19 transmission.
SDUSD Operations Support Officer Marceline Marques says her district worked with local doctors and UC San Diego Health to develop safety protocols.
"One of our mantras is, 'Put our children first,'" she says. "When you put the children first, everything else falls into place."
SDUSD now requires all students and staff to wear masks on the bus. They also load the buses from the back to the front and make students sit in every other row, one child to a seat. Only kids from the same household are allowed to sit together. Windows on the buses stay open to keep air circulating. Drivers also clean high-touch areas in between each route.
The district also has contingency plans in place in case anyone shows symptoms while on the bus.
"A lot of effort and a lot of work has gone into making sure that not only are our students safe, but our employees as well," says Marques.
Similar rules are in place at GUHSD and Cajon Valley. All three districts say students and parents have been compliant, and they have no confirmed reports of any COVID-19 transmission during a bus ride.
"We feel very confident that students are safe on the buses," says Kemper from GUHSD.
Brodwolf, from Cajon Valley, says her district has also focused on the kids' emotional health on the buses. Because Cajon Valley only deals with elementary school students, they focus on making the buses more inviting. That included using smiley-face stickers to mark which seats are unavailable because of social distancing.
"It's a scary thing," Brodwolf says of the new rules. "You come back, and you have masks that you have to wear, your drivers are cleaning your seats... Everything like that we took into consideration to move into a fully complete project. And I think we've been very successful with that."
For SDUSD, which just resumed bus operations, it's part of the joy that comes with bringing kids back to campus.
"Just seeing the buses out on the road, I think it brings joy to the city," says Marques. "It looks like we're reopening, things are happening, and families are excited to be back at school."