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Walking programs save some students without school buses

Ultimately, when the ashes of COVID-19 have been sifted through and its epitaph is written, the damaging effects of the coronavirus will not be hard to find.

The start revealed some underlying imperfections in the country’s collective education system, ranging from technological inequalities to shortages of bus drivers, made more critical by its threat to the health of this vulnerable population. This made the pandemic appear as a symptom of an institutional illness manifested in the nationwide driver shortage. This evidence is well documented.

The driver shortage in Massachusetts was so acute that The Associated Press reported that Governor Charlie Baker ordered 250 National Guardsmen to train as school van drivers for school districts in the communities of Lowell, Chelsea, Lawrence and Lynn. .

Also last month, in Lee County, Florida, bus drivers were reportedly afraid to report to work for health reasons after one of their fellow drivers died from COVID. Seven others were hospitalized and 19 were quarantined.

Meanwhile, police in Montgomery County, Maryland, reported that the situation around the county’s schools was a perfect storm of traffic jams that blocked some schools in the county as growing numbers of parents were forced to drive their children to school and pick them up because of the bus. shortage of drivers.

This was the case despite calls from the Safe Routes to School program of the Montgomery County Department of Transportation for parents to organize “walking school buses” so that small children could safely walk to their neighborhood schools under the road. adult supervision.

Panicked school districts have offered wages of up to $ 28 an hour to entice drivers. Other districts and contractors have offered signing bonuses of up to $ 5,000 for candidate bus drivers, but to no avail. This, amid reports that contractors were poaching school district drivers with alluring signing bonuses.

Some school districts have paid parents to drive their children to school while others have done so voluntarily. Either they opposed the mask warrants for bus passengers or they feared for the health of their children because the buses were so crowded that social distancing was nearly impossible. Depending on the severity of the shortages, transportation managers and office staff with CDLs filled as backup drivers.

But COVID-19 has also resurrected a few alternatives that may have been frowned upon initially as too painful, embarrassing, or potentially disruptive for many school communities. An alternative generally used when school bus routes need to be consolidated or cut is to increase walking distances to determine user eligibility. Students should live far enough from their home school – for example, at least 800 meters for elementary students, one kilometer for middle school and one and a half kilometers for high school – to take the school bus.

When in-person learning returned this year, many transportation departments were overwhelmed by the influx of tsunami-like students who had to make their way to school amid restrictive social distancing rules on buses. So, for some school districts, the number of students who lost their school bus privileges because their walking distance to school increased, while others changed little or no change.

“Yes, more children go to school on foot than before [COVID]”commented Gingi Borg, safety and training supervisor for the Newport-Mesa Unified School District in Costa Mesa, Calif., adding that the elimination of” courtesy pickups “has increased their number of walks.

“We have really started to enforce our non-bus zones,” she continued. “Before that, we transported students who lived in the pedestrian zone. Last year, we regrouped some bus stops because of the pandemic and because of a shortage of drivers. We’re not as badly off as in other neighborhoods, but everyone here drives except the manager.

Newport-Mesa enforces a “bus-free zone” for elementary school students who live within three-quarters of a mile of campus. For college, the distance is 1.5 miles from school, and for high school, it is two miles.

Borg added that participation in the federal Safe Routes to School program and the city’s cooperation helped facilitate the change. “We have a lot of support from the city with crossing guards, and the safe routes to the school are marked with arrows,” she said. “It’s really important to have crossing guards in key places. The city provides the brigadiers. Parents also drive their children to school.

Routing software vendors are monitoring the situation closely.

“We have clearly seen a decrease in the number of students taking the bus, for sure,” said Antonio Civitella, President and CEO of Transfinder. “Parents are still worried because it is almost impossible to honor social distancing recommendations on the school bus. Some parents say they will just drive their children to school.

Civitella set a personal example at her neighborhood school, where the traffic jam created by parents’ vehicles meant more than 30 minutes of waiting to pick up the children. ” I do not think so [parents] are aware of the shortage of drivers, ”he added. “They just know the buses are late so they just say I’ll take my own child to school.”

Sonia Mastros, president of Orbit Software, said the distances students have to travel have also increased. “They have definitely increased walking distances to comply with state law to qualify for child reimbursement, and they don’t have the drivers needed to drive all the children,” Mastros said. “The shortage of drivers is insane. And because of social distancing, they need more buses. “

Mastros pointed out that there was a shortage of drivers before COVID and now, with social distancing, some districts cannot have as many children on the bus and must use two buses for each bus as it previously operated.

She said that even with the signing bonuses and the increase in drivers’ wages, they still don’t get the candidates. “I don’t know how they’re going to handle this. There are even school districts that offer to pay parents that much per month to take their child to school.

Greg Marvel, president and CEO of TransTraks, said 25 to 30 percent of his company’s 300 customers have increased their walking zones because service to some schools has been cut.

“Some districts have completely stopped transporting children to certain schools due to a shortage of bus drivers and limited carrying capacity due to COVID,” Marvel said. “If you have one per seat, you have 28 children on a bus. You need to change the races and do more than one race. I have a district with 50 vacant driver positions, a smaller district with 28 routes has 20 vacant positions. Another neighborhood with 15 routes and 8 vacancies.

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Mike McClure, director of transportation for Fayetteville Schools in Arkansas, said he had noticed little change in the number of local marches, but if there was, it was by choice. “We haven’t changed our walking zones based on COVID,” McClure said. “And the walking zones that we have are based more on the geographic limitations of our buses and they are established school by school.”

For example, McClure reported an elementary school in a rural area with steep, mountainous terrain and streets too narrow for most buses. “Because of that, we only take the buses up there that we are required to take, such as our special needs buses,” said McClure. “We don’t take regular educational buses there, so it’s a walking area. “

McClure further explained that while the district does not participate in a Safe Routes to School program, safety is the primary determinant of walking areas. “We are not doing it by distances but what we have determined to be safe walking zones,” McClure said. “Even if [students] live a short distance from the school, we do not require students to cross four-lane highways. We determine in neighborhoods where students can walk safely, and even if their address is near a school, we don’t want students to cross dangerous roads to get there.

The number of students walking to school in the Othello school district in eastern Washington has not increased, according to transportation director Marian Shade. “That number has stayed about the same,” Shade said. “On the contrary, the use of our buses has decreased minimally due to the fear of COVID. We have a lot of parents who drive their kids to school and a lot of kids who walk, and then we have those who drive from [rural areas]. The numbers are roughly the same as before COVID. The distances remained the same. The shortage of drivers has had no impact on the number of children walking to school.

Shade said the district is required to update its Safe Routes to School maps as often as possible and provide them to schools and parents. “We provide a safe route to the school map, so they know the streets that have crosswalks and sidewalks,” Shade said. “These are the streets that we are trying to use.”

Shade, who also drives a route due to a shortage of drivers, said the district is coordinating with the city to establish safe routes. “We have more safety patrols around schools and our city is currently working on plans to create safer streets,” she said. “The city will conduct a pilot program of mini roundabouts, small roundabouts and speed bumps to slow down traffic on side streets. “

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