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If You Must Carpool for School During COVID-19, Here’s How to Do It

An illustration of a masked girl in front of car Cars.com illustration by Paul Dolan/valiza14

Normally at this time of year, some kids and all parents and caretakers would be looking forward to the beginning of the school year. This year, however, is anything but normal. With the COVID-19 pandemic, there are so many questions around whether the kids will attend school in person, online or in some hybrid form that many parents haven’t had the chance to think about how their children are going to get to school whether by school bus, carpool, walking, biking or a car ride from parents.

Related: More Coronavirus and Cars Coverage

But figuring out your child’s transportation to school is an important part of the decision-making process when it comes to evaluating whether your family should choose in-person full-time or hybrid schooling versus virtual or at-home learning. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention offers a decision tool to help parents weigh their options.

A Cars.com survey of parents with school-aged children found that 39% of respondents said their children will attend school in person full time this school year, while 53% said their kids will receive part- or full-time instruction online. The survey was conducted July 22-Aug. 4, 2020, with 1,035 respondents.

Survey results showed that the pandemic is having an effect on school transportation for those respondents whose children are attending school in person.

According to the survey, 44% of respondents said their children took the school bus before COVID-19, but during the pandemic, that number dropped by 13 points to 31%. Carpooling has increased slightly during the pandemic, according to the Cars.com survey. Before the pandemic, 9% of respondents said they carpooled to school but, during the coronavirus, carpooling has increased by 2 points to 11%. Here’s how other modes of transportation have been impacted by the coronavirus:

  • Walking: pre-pandemic, 16%; during pandemic, 16%
  • Biking: pre-pandemic, 8%; during pandemic, 13%
  • Ride-sharing: pre-pandemic, 4%; during pandemic, 4%
  • Public transportation: pre-pandemic, 4%; during pandemic, 3%
  • 16 and older, driving themselves: pre-pandemic, 3%; during pandemic, 3%
  • 16 and older, driving with friends: pre-pandemic, 1%; during pandemic, 1%

If you normally rely on a school bus to transport your child, you may need to find an alternate means. According to Education Week, some school districts will reduce the number of students who ride the bus, and that could explain the increase in carpooling by survey respondents. 

Consider this: Under normal circumstances, 56 students can ride on a school bus, according to the National Council on School Facilities and Cooperative Strategies. During the pandemic, the same bus capacity under social-distancing guidelines with no one wearing masks would be seven students. The capacity goes up to 28 students if they’re wearing masks. Basically, the normal school bus capacity is cut in half during this pandemic. 

Now that I’ve added more anxiety to your already full plate, let’s dig into getting your child to school safely.

Is It Safe to Carpool to School?

First, let’s remember that there could be a variety of ways to get your child to school if the bus is no longer an option. Assuming you don’t live too far from your child’s school, they can walk or ride their bike (with parental supervision if they’re young). At my son’s elementary school, some parents use a family cargo bike to get their kids to school. Or you can skip the carpool and drive them yourself. 

The CDC told Cars.com that “we recommend avoiding pooled rides where multiple passengers are not in the same household.” However, if that is not possible, the CDC recommended the following steps “to prevent getting and spreading COVID-19”:

  • Stay home if you are sick or had close contact with someone who has the coronavirus.
  • Everyone in the car must wear a mask.
  • Everyone in the car must wash or sanitize their hands.
  • Keep the car windows lowered to increase ventilation inside the car, and run the car’s ventilation system on non-recirculation mode.

When considering a carpool with someone outside of your family, make sure that the bonus child is already in your child’s classroom cohort or pod, which is the subset of students who will be together in a hybrid class setting. It’s all about limiting who’s in your family’s pandemic bubble.

When it comes to social distancing, things get tougher in a car. If you have a three-row SUV or minivan, you could put one child in the third row and the other child in the second row, but if your car is loaded with your own kids already, you should probably skip adding someone from outside of your family to your car to limit everyone’s risks.

What Should Families Do Before Carpool Pickup?

Each morning, parents and caretakers should screen kids who are heading into school. That means checking their temperature and whether they have any symptoms for COVID-19. If your child has any symptoms, they shouldn’t go to school. This sample COVID-19 screening questionnaire covers all the basics.

Kids should have their masks on and their hands freshly washed or sanitized before getting into the carpool vehicle. Ideally, every child would have their own hand sanitizer bottle that they carry with them. And once they leave the carpool and head into school, they should wash their hands again. 

After I’ve Dropped the Kids Off, How Do I Disinfect My Car?

Skip the bleach wipes and grab a bottle of isopropyl alcohol, or rubbing alcohol. Isopropyl alcohol in concentrations of 70% or higher will kill the coronavirus, but it won’t damage your car’s interior surfaces like many of the disinfectants recommended for use against COVID-19 by the CDC.

Be sure to use a microfiber cloth, not paper towels, when wiping down car’s interior surfaces. While you may be able to focus on wiping down the vehicle’s second and third rows, be sure to target the following:

  • Seat belt receptors and buckles
  • Window switches
  • Grab handles
  • Arm rests
  • Door handles (interior and exterior)
  • Door pillars, if they’re used to help someone get into the third row
  • Air vents
  • Buttons for folding second-row seats
  • Liftgate or trunk release handle (if the kids put their backpacks in there)

If you’re looking to go even deeper, read more on how to clean your car’s interior, including leather seats, during the pandemic. If you need to clean your child’s car seat, check out our tips.

Any Other Tips for Carpooling During the Pandemic?

  • To limit the touching of surfaces, tell the kids you’ll open the car’s doors for them — at pick up and drop off.  
  • Have a to-go bag with extra hand sanitizer bottles and a few disposable masks for any unexpected issues.
  • No one should have any drinks or snacks in the car. You don’t want anyone taking their masks off and on while carpooling.

One last thing: It’s OK to say no to carpooling at this time. Even if it’s another family that you’ve been carpooling to school with for years. Ultimately, parents and caretakers have to make the difficult decisions that will keep their families safe during a pandemic.

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