It's far from breaking news to tell you that COVID-19's insidious reach has affected every aspect of our lives. Some more visible and stark than others, of course. Hospitals, workplaces, schools. Choices often feel like picking between bad and worse.

In schools, with omicron raging across the county, substitutes are looking for substitutes. And the challenges trickle down to the hard-working folks who shuttle a large number of our students to school and home. That's right, the bus drivers — the offensive linemen of the school system. We never hear their names or bus numbers unless something bad happens. They are just as affected by COVID-19.

And maybe Austin Swafford, a 30-year-old bus owner/operator, is the example we need to highlight to show that working together is the best way.

Swafford lives in East Ridge but is responsible for three buses of students on Signal Mountain. His answer to the pandemic was commitment and kindness to others.

"I love Hamilton County schools," Swafford said Thursday before heading out on his afternoon routes. "And I know we're all in a tough spot. Everyone's in a tight pinch."

OK, let's rewind. Swafford is among those who is hyper-COVID aware. In fact, his wife, Amy, has ribbingly told him he tests himself so often that he was going to test himself into getting the virus.

Well, she was right. Swafford got COVID-19 on Jan. 3, two days before Hamilton County students were to return to school.

He had hired a new driver, Karen Reynolds, for a different route on Signal, but after extensive review and preparation, he needed her to step into his route — a brand new route — through and around Fox Run and the accompanying area.

"She was ready for the other [route], but Fox Run is different," Swafford said, "and there was no way I was going to leave her on her own in that kind of situation or put those kids in a tough place."

So, come Wednesday morning, his temperature sky-rocketing, the chills expanding, Swafford arose at his normal 5 a.m., got behind the wheel of his 2018 Honda Accord and led Reynolds and her bus riders through the route.

"It was cold, too, so I told her I'd brake twice if I saw black ice," said Swafford, who spent several years with the Chattanooga Police Department, experience he said helps him make safety his priority and keep his head on swivel at all times.

He reran the route Wednesday afternoon. School was canceled Thursday, and after a morning delay, Swafford was the lead car in their two-vehicle parade to and from school Friday, too, as his friend and veteran owner/operator Will Craven picked up Reynolds' original route.

"My grandmother and my wife, everybody told me I could make my COVID worse by going out," Swafford said. "But I knew I had to make sure she was comfortable and could get the kids there and back safely."

Take that, COVID-19.

Contact Jay Greeson at

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Jay Greeson