FAIRFAX COUNTY, Va. — Nicholas Rocha is gearing up for the first day of school in Fairfax County. As a school bus driver for the last five years in the county, he's often the first face many students see in the morning when they start their school day. But the last year and a half, he hasn't seen much of those students.
"It means something really special to me to have them all coming back because there were a lot of kids I didn't get to see when COVID hit," said Rocha.
Nearly 100% of students in Fairfax County are returning to the classroom in person this month. That means social distancing on school buses won't be possible anymore.
"We'll be sitting two to a seat for middle and high school and three to a seat for elementary just like we did before," said Suzie Ratliff, a bus driver and supervisor for the department.
School officials say that is why masks are so crucial. Masks are mandatory on all school buses for all students and drivers.
"We know we're keeping our students safe, and they are our kids when they're on the bus," said Sissie Scalia, a long-time driver and supervisor with Fairfax County Schools.
There are also cleaning protocols in place. Drivers are responsible for sanitizing the seats between the morning and afternoon routes. There are also extra masks and hand sanitizer on board for any students who may need them.
"We're all moms and dads and we're just as worried about your kids as we are our own," said Ratliff.
In addition to COVID-19, there's another hurdle these drivers are facing this year. Like many other school districts, Fairfax County is down at least 50 drivers. The district hopes a $2,000 bonus will be enough of an incentive to attract new hires.
But for the current drivers, they say their biggest motivation is the kids.
"I can't wait to see the smile of the kids coming through, even with the masks," said Rocha.