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Friendship is key to bus driver's success with students

Hai Htoo has been driving school buses for District 518 since 2014.

Hai Htoo
Bus driver Hai Htoo greets Worthington Middle School students as they board the bus Monday afternoon. (Leah Ward/The Globe)

WORTHINGTON — One of the first people to interact with District 518 students each morning is their bus driver.

That's a responsibility at least one local driver says he doesn't take lightly.

Hai Htoo has worked for Bud's Bus Service since 2014, when he moved to Worthington. The company helped him get his commercial driver's license and has been supportive every step of the way, Htoo said.

While it makes a big difference to work for a great employer, that isn't even close to his favorite part of the job. That honor belongs to District 518 students.

"I love working with kids," Htoo said. "If I don't see them, I miss them."

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And he doesn't just mean when a kid is gone once or twice for a sick day. As difficult as the last year has been in so many ways, one COVID loss for Htoo has been missing out on seeing the students every day.

At the beginning of each school year, Htoo works hard to learn each student's name so he can greet them personally when they get on the bus. During the COVID-19 pandemic, face masks and distance learning have made that goal more difficult, but Htoo has done his best to be a friendly face.

Even before the pandemic, driving a bus was never an easy job. It requires one to pay attention to the students and the road at the same time — neither of which is predictable. Htoo never knows what kind of drivers he'll share the road with, and the kids certainly keep him on his toes.

After each route, Htoo walks through the bus looking for left-behind items and tries to figure out which students to return them to. Every once in a while, he also finds a student who fell asleep or got distracted and missed their stop. If it's a younger student, sometimes they're afraid and crying. Htoo comforts the kid with a smile, looks up their address and takes them home.

Htoo explained that he always tells his passengers that he's their friend, but while they're in the bus, he's the leader, and they need to listen to what he says. He loves running into his students at Walmart, and they're always happy to greet him.

"The funnest part of my job is that I always learn new things from the kids all the time," Htoo said.

One of his favorite community traditions is at the end of each school year, when graduating seniors put on their caps and gowns and travel by bus to Prairie Elementary to visit the younger students.

"It makes me really proud to see them grow," Htoo said.

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The visit to Prairie didn't get to happen last year — another COVID casualty — but Htoo hopes it will be back in time for his own children, ages 6 and 10, to benefit.

In honor of Minnesota School Bus Driver Appreciation Week, which is continuing through Saturday, Htoo offered some suggestions for how the community can make his job a little easier. First and foremost, drivers just need to be careful around school buses, he said. He's noticed more frequent stop arm violations lately — a misdemeanor offense that comes with a minimum $500 fine.

"I would like to encourage drivers to pay more attention to that," he said.

Htoo ferries about 62 kids back and forth each day, and their safety is his number one priority. When he's off the clock, he worries about how local, state and federal government decisions might affect traffic rules that help him keep the kids safe.

He asks elected officials to keep bus drivers in mind as they consider the best ways to reopen the schools and the economy during the pandemic. Many of his coworkers are senior citizens and at a higher risk for contracting the virus.

In the meantime, he'll do his part by following COVID guidelines and watching the road. And of course, he'll keep smiling — even if the students can only see it in his eyes.

Related Topics: EDUCATION
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