Students will have to don face coverings to board school buses this fall, but they will each get an entire seat to themselves to maintain social distancing, under new state guidelines that will dramatically reduce ridership and complicate reopening plans for many districts across Massachusetts.

The seating restriction — instead of the usual two or three students per seat — means ridership capacity will shrink by more than 50 percent and could dramatically increase the cost of busing students.

That, in turn, could cause districts to implore parents to drive or walk their children to school, or lead school districts to operate buses in multiple waves, stagger school start times, or alternate students between days of in-person instruction and remote learning, according to the guidelines created in response to the pandemic.

“In developing this guidance, the health and safety of students and staff were our top priorities,” state Education Commissioner Jeffrey Riley wrote in a letter to superintendents that was sent out late Wednesday night with the guidelines.
The guidelines also recommend hand sanitizing, cleaning buses after morning and afternoon runs, opening school bus windows as much as possible, and assigning students to specific seats. The latter could result in having a student sit near a window in one row and having another student near the aisle in the next row to ensure the greatest distance possible. The guidelines are designed to maintain a distance of at least 3 feet between students.

The rules come as districts statewide are scrambling to meet a July 31 deadline to submit a summary of three fall options they are developing — under orders from state education officials — that would provide a full-scale return to school, a continuation of only remote learning, or a mix of the two. Comprehensive plans are due Aug. 10.

School district officials have been stalled in crafting their reopening plans because critical guidance from the state, including safety measures for school buses, have been trickling out slowly as state officials consult with educators, medical experts, and other stakeholders. Governor Charlie Baker, who ordered schools closed in March, is encouraging all districts to bring back as many students as possible this fall, depending on the course of the pandemic.

Districts could gain some wiggle room on buses, depending on how many parents keep their children at home. Children can also share seats if they live in the same household.

Given that busing students could take more time this fall, the state will allow districts to cut into required instructional hours on a case-by-case basis.

Robert Baldwin, superintendent of the Fairhaven school system on the South Coast, said the ever-evolving information on school reopening is creating a tense decision-making process. The transportation guidelines, he said, have him wondering if he will need additional bus runs, whether the transportation company will have the capacity to do it, and how that might influence the final school reopening plan.

“This is like a three-month-long snow day decision: constantly having different variables change and then you have to make adjustments,” he said. “And in the end, you know what will happen when you make a call, people will disagree with you.”

That dynamic is already emerging in Lexington, which decided at the end of June to do a mix of in-person and remote learning for the coming school year. Some parents, upset the district won’t do a full-scale return to school this fall, are planning a protest Friday night.

The new guidelines generated a range of reactions. Chris Matero, a West Roxbury parent, said he was comfortable with the guidelines, noting his children’s commutes will likely be the safest part of their day. His son has been traveling in a small school bus with few students on board while his daughter takes a commuter rail train, which has had few riders lately, and an MBTA bus.

“I’m more concerned about them spending the whole day in their classrooms,” he said, citing poor ventilation in the school system’s aging buildings. He thinks in-person learning should be delayed until a vaccine or a reliable COVID-19 treatment is available, but his children are eager to return.

Boston school officials are leaning toward a mix of in-person and remote learning in the fall, citing concerns about transportation as part of their rationale.

Andre Francois, president of the Boston School Bus Drivers Union, said the transportation guidelines don’t go far enough and doubted the staggered seating would ensure 3 feet of social distancing, especially given how active children are.

“They are not going to stay in their seats,” he said. “People are going to get sick like crazy.”

Four Boston school bus drivers died of COVID-19 this spring, he said.

Transportation restrictions are expected to be the most cumbersome for Boston, which buses more than 24,000 students to 235 city-run, private, and charter schools. It remains unclear how social distancing will strain its fleet of 721 buses. Boston school officials have been criticized for years for running too many buses with few students on board, while most students in grades 7-12 take the MBTA.

The state guidelines also address students who will be riding public transit, encouraging districts to avoid having students ride during rush hour, among other measures.

Jonathan Palumbo, a district spokesman, said in a statement school officials will closely read the state’s busing guidelines.

The state guidelines, in addressing students who may appear to be sick, seem to offer somewhat contradictory advice at times. For instance, the guidelines recommend posting signs near the doors of the buses “clearly indicating that no one may enter if they have symptoms of respiratory illness or fever” and if children become sick during the school day, they shouldn’t ride the bus.

However, the guidelines also state “if a student who may be symptomatic must board the vehicle, they should be spaced at least 6 feet from other students as feasible” and that area should not be used again until after it has been disinfected.

The state guidelines, like the ones the state issued for classrooms, set a lower standard for social distancing on school buses than the 6 feet the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended in its guidelines, which suggested leaving every other row empty.

The CDC guidelines would have likely limited capacity on a typical bus to about a dozen students, making it unfeasible to transport students, said John McCarthy, chief executive officer of NRT and Van Pool, a school busing company based in Framingham. He applauded Massachusetts education officials for finding a comfortable middle ground between the CDC guidelines and private sector transportation operators, noting that airlines are leaving only middle seats empty and some are now even filling those.

“They did a great job of minimizing risk and capitalizing on safety,” said McCarthy, who sits on the state’s school reopening task force and had a hand in developing the busing guidelines. “It’s very well thought out.”

Nevertheless, he said the guidelines could cause challenges. For instance, he said, a shortage of school bus drivers — compounded by some current drivers at high risk of COVID-19 — could make it difficult for districts to add more buses. But he added some laid-off workers in other sectors of the economy hard hit by the pandemic might find bus driving jobs appealing.