Air conditioning means different things to different special-needs students. Some humidity-sensitive students require carefully controlled humidity levels. The heat-sensitive are prone to heat exhaustion or heat prostration during their bus ride. Cold-sensitive students require steady temperature levels high enough for their safety, health and comfort. Meanwhile, some students tend to quickly dehydrate in heated or cooled buses, especially during long rides, and need to be allowed to bring beverages onboard. They require appropriate fluid intake, which needs to be monitored by the driver team. The bus assistant may be authorized by the physician and transportation supervisor to provide this additional service. Without this authorization, a nurse may be required to ride as a personal attendant to the student. One of the byproducts of this situation is that other students or their parents may insist on the same beverage privilege. This is manageable as long as the driver team does not permit ice-chewing (which carries a high risk of choking). Drivers and attendants also need to be aware of their own possible adverse reactions to temperature swings. Any temperature-related illness increases the risk of an accident.
What air conditioners do
Air conditioners really do condition the air. Not only do they cool the air, they also remove dust and dirt and lower humidity levels. That’s why it’s important to choose the right unit. The wrong unit not only wastes energy but also adds to passenger discomfort. Oversized systems cool the air too quickly, causing the unit to frequently switch off and on. This reduces its ability to remove moisture from the air and causes the bus to feel cold and clammy. An A/C unit that’s too small runs constantly without ever cooling the bus to a comfortable temperature. To pick the right cooling unit, follow the original equipment manufacturer recommendations. When an A/C bus is out of service and no similarly equipped spare is available, parents have the right to expect repairs or preventive maintenance to be completed quickly. One alternative is to pay the parents to transport the child. In addition, taxis or paratransit service may temporarily assist medically fragile or technology-dependent students. Ambulance service is a last resort; it is extremely expensive.
Lift buses pose A/C challenge
Be sure the cooling system has been properly installed. All manufacturer instructions should be followed.
Keep the cool air inside by caulking or weatherstripping bus windows, lift doors and front and rear exit windows.
Avoid heat- or humidity-producing activities in special-needs students.
Maintain the cooling unit. This includes changing the filter at least once a month.
Dirty filters reduce A/C efficiency by 5 to 15 percent.
Keep vents clear. Check for obstructions caused by students’ personal belongings.
Buses with wheelchair lifts may require extra cooling capability because of the lengthy loading process. In addition, these buses may require heavy-duty alternators, additional bus insulation, window tinting and white roofs. If possible, store lift-equipped buses indoors or in the shade. The most efficient A/C unit can reduce the interior temperature by no more than 20 degrees. If the outdoor air temperature is 110 degrees, then the coolest the bus interior can reach is 90 degrees. Other ways to keep special-needs buses as cool as possible include the following:
Ray Turner is a special-education transportation coordinator at Northside Independent School District in San Antonio, Texas.