Issues with busing on the first day of school is not a new thing for the Essex Westford School District. However, with the transportation plan changing so frequently in the recent weeks, EWSD has been under a microscope.
Thanks to some last minute planning by EWSD, Essex High School students who had historically had service were able to board a school bus last Wednesday morning on the first day of school.
This was possible when EWSD and Colchester SD consolidated the number of buses being sent to the Champlain Islands, said EWSD chief operating officer Brian Donahue. By working with Colchester, EWSD was able to board island students on one bus, freeing up a bus for EHS, he said.
Two more buses and drivers were secured, so the district created seven routes for EHS students on the first day of school, Donahue said.
“With our new transportation manager and his expertise coming from a public transit background, I think we pulled off something pretty large,” Donahue said. “While there are so many challenges that have been created with this transportation and people really being put in tough positions, that is a really nice, small step.”
Transportation on the first day of school was full of mixed reviews by parents.
Betzi Bilodeau said she had a great experience because her daughter’s bus for Essex Middle School arrived at exactly the time noted on the schedule.
“We’re bus stop No. 25 so I was a little concerned that the bus would be quite delayed, as in years past we’ve had major delays the first week,” Bilodeau said. “I was expecting major delays, but this morning, exactly at 7:36, as it said on our sheet, the bus pulled right in.”
She added that while some of the updates on transportation came last minute and without warning, the communication from administration was helpful.
“I had figured out when our bus was supposed to come, and then the route did change last minute yesterday,” Bilodeau said last Wednesday. “It was a benefit to us, but I saw the update and was able to update my daughter.”
Alicia McCurley’s children’s bus stop changed from a pickup at her front door to a community stop down the road. While she said it has shifted the family routine in the morning and might make walking down the street in the winter more precarious, she admitted she can’t be too unhappy with her situation.
“I have work flexibility and so does my husband, so we’re lucky in that way,” McCurley said. “Not everybody has that option, so that is really tricky, the changes they’ve made, for that traditional working 7-4 type parent. I don’t know how they are pulling it off.”
Others did have tougher time with hiccups on the first day of school. Cathleen Francis and her children waited at the community stop for more than 30 minutes for a bus that never came. Eventually, she said, parents split up by school and drove groups of kids in themselves.
“I’m just really disappointed in the communication that the school has done with the new system,” Francis said. “My kids already have anxiety about taking the bus and going to school and that … added another level of stress on an already stressful day.”
Francis said she called EWSD transportation manager Jame Smith, who assured her the stop would not be missed the next morning.
Donahue said the district manned a call center for the first few days of school to assist parents with specific questions and concerns. He said they’ve been working hard with Smith, Mountain Transit and individual drivers to make sure those fixes and changes happen in a timely fashion.
“We’re getting amazingly good feedback,” Donahue said. “A lot of this needs the practical experience and execution to really get better.”
EWSD board member Patrick Murray said he answered many parents’ emails and Facebook messages, and relayed more nuanced questions to Donahue and Smith for advisement.
“Any interaction that I’ve had so far with parents has been very respectful,” he said. “It helps tremendously to know that someone is listening and reading the problems they’ve had on a real time basis.”
As drivers become licensed and available for use, Donahue assured new routes would be made, existing routes updated and ride times shortened as the year progresses.
“We’ll get better every day,” he said. “There isn’t a school year that I can remember that doesn’t start off with some chaos.”
Bilodeau echoed Donahue’s sentiment.
“We all have to have to … experience a little bit of pain for the gain,” she said.