Tammy Diethelm has seen a lot of changes in her 43 years driving a school bus in the Eastern Carver County school district.

She watched many of the district's schools get built and navigated the bus over gravel roads before they were paved. She witnessed children grow from wide-eyed kindergartners into high school graduates.

But the COVID-19 pandemic, she said, has resulted in some of the biggest and most difficult changes of all.

"It's put a big damper on a lot of things," Diethelm said. "Kids don't get as close to you anymore. You don't do the high-fives anymore. A lot of them now don't even want to say good morning to you."

School bus drivers have faced many challenges since the start of the pandemic, from compensation questions to staffing issues and COVID outbreaks — all while the interactions that bring many of them joy remain limited and brief.

But some drivers like Diethelm have stepped up whether students are going to school in person or not.

"School bus drivers are so valuable to a school district," said John Thomas, president of the Minnesota Association for Pupil Transportation and transportation manager for Eastern Carver County Schools. "They have been there to deliver food, to deliver materials. They've been flexible with all the pivots and the dial-backs and the dial-ups. Their resilience is amazing."

As schools have returned to in-person classes, bus drivers have faced plenty of new challenges. For some, their routes have changed. They must be extra vigilant in taking note of who is on the bus that day, and they worry about seating arrangements.

Drivers make sure no one is breaking the COVID protocols. Then at the end of each ride, they must do a thorough job of disinfecting their bus.

Karen Dayon, transportation coordinator for the Rosemount-Apple Valley-Eagan school district, said each of her bus drivers makes sure their students' rides are as safe as possible.

"They really care about their kids that they're transporting," Dayon said. "They've really stepped up and have become flexible in facing those challenges that we have today in our current environment."

It goes beyond the drive to and from school. Some bus drivers follow up with students and families to see how they're doing if they miss a day of school.

Even when all classes were virtual and there were no routes to drive, bus drivers still found ways to help students by dropping off lunches or going on grocery runs. Thomas' drivers in East Carver County even staged bus parades as a way to boost student morale.

Those acts of kindness, above and beyond the call of duty, didn't start because of the pandemic. Kala Henkensiefken, transportation manager for special needs buses for Bemidji Area Schools in northern Minnesota, said drivers do good deeds that go unnoticed all the time because they don't seek the attention.

"They don't go around and say what they've done out in the community," Henkensiefken said. "They just do it and don't even think about it."

Diethelm is one of those drivers, said Patty Reed, terminal manager for Student Transportation of America, the company that contracts with the Eastern Carver County district.

It's not unusual to see Diethelm mowing the grass around the terminal in summer, buying groceries for fellow drivers struggling to make ends meet or providing boots and coats to students who don't have them, she said.

"There's a lot of times she does things off the clock for us and she does it out of the goodness of her heart," Reed said. "Not many people can go to their job and say, 'Look what I did today. I made a difference.' I think Tammy knows that she makes a difference."

Peter Warren • 612-673-1713