by Amy Alford
My kindergartener’s buses have been astonishingly late during this first week of school. We drove him to Robert Goddard the first morning (Tuesday), but he rode the school bus home that afternoon. His bus was scheduled to arrive at the stop at 4:27, and it actually arrived at 5:15. His school day had officially ended at 3:55, one hour and 20 minutes before he arrived home.
When the bus had not appeared at 5:05, I called the school and was told that it had only arrived at the school to pick up students 10 minutes earlier. That leaves the school scrambling to provide supervision for students for an indefinite period. The second day (Wednesday), we arrived at the bus stop with ten minutes to spare (as PGCPS requests) before the scheduled pick up time of 8:39. The bus finally arrived to pick up my son at 9:30, a full 15 minutes after the school day is scheduled to begin.
Both mornings I tried calling the transportation department’s phone bank, as suggested on bus route letters to parents and on the PGCPS website. Wednesday morning, I called at 9:10 and waited on hold until the bus arrived at 9:30. I tried again at 11:30 am on Thursday, once it seemed reasonable to assume that all students had made it to school. After 20 minutes on hold, I finally got through. The gentleman who answered was polite and efficient, and looked up the bus lot supervisor in charge of my son’s routes. He gave me a name and phone number and let me know that the lot supervisor is responsible for both the drivers and buses and is the person to call about both specific issues with buses and lost items left on school buses.
I went ahead and called the number I’d been given and reached the lot foreman. She explained that we were experiencing the last stage of a cascading chain of delays. School buses in Prince George’s County run as many as four routes back-to-back to different schools. The high school, which is the first route my son’s bus serves, had changed the time time at which they allow buses to drop off students before the start of school, in order to prevent fights/misbehavior from lack of supervision. Last year they had allowed students to be dropped off five minutes earlier.
Another problem was that the directions drivers are given sometimes send them between schools via the Beltway, which is never a good idea at rush hour. New drivers were unaware that experienced drivers avoid the Beltway at all costs.
The route lengths may have been overly optimistic, and the lot foreman planned to come in over the weekend (when there wouldn’t be any immediate crises to deal with) to look for ways to modify the routes or combine stops to save time. She explained that if the expected pickup time at a stop changes by less than 10 minutes, the drivers will let students know (verbally) on Monday. If the change will be more than ten minutes, they will provide written notification to parents instead. I asked about the late afternoon pickup and was told that the high school that is the first afternoon route for my son’s bus had held buses for over 45 minutes while they struggled to make sure all students got on the correct bus. They revamped their dismissal procedure the second day and improved the situation, but not enough to make the buses run on time.
I left a voice mail for the director of transportation expressing how disruptive the extreme lateness this week had been. If I hear anything back, I’ll share it here.
What I’d like to see is a system wide effort to prevent this from happening next year. The efficiency of the bus transportation system was heavily criticized in the 2014 audit performed by the state of Maryland. Perhaps some common sense, system-wide changes could reduce the chaos during the first week of school and throughout the year. The knowledge experienced drivers have about routes should be documented so that new drivers aren’t starting from scratch. The school system should have a policy about when high schools allow buses to drop off students. That way there isn’t confusion about how much wiggle room the bus route planners have. If a school is unable to get students loaded on buses in a timely manner on the first day, there must be someone in the system with the experience to provide advice to prevent a repeat occurrence. As a school system, we shouldn’t be settling for this level of turmoil during the first week.
Additionally, I’d love to see an automated bus tracking system that parents can use to track their child’s bus. (PGCPS has had GPS tracking of buses with the data available to the central office since around 2010.) Public transportation bus systems already use tracking systems for riders, and some school districts are starting to use such systems. This would dramatically reduce the backlog of calls to the transportation line about lateness, leaving them able to focus on situations that really require staff attention, such as students who ended up on the wrong bus. It would also help reduce the disruption lateness causes families. Had I known my son’s bus still hadn’t reached the school at 4:30, I would have picked my younger son up from daycare then and come back to wait for the bus. As it was, I was left wondering if I was going to make it to daycare before they closed.
We want to hear your stories. What were your experiences with school buses in the first week? Does anyone else have insight into potential solutions? Sound off in the comments below.