Essex Westford school leaders are working on some unique – yet temporary – fixes in response to the transportation controversy this week while parents continue to chastise leaders for their handling of the ordeal, which has left many students without a bus on the first day of school.
Mountain Transit has 11 drivers going through the training and licensing process and it’s unclear when they will be ready for driving, according to Brian Donahue, chief operating officer of EWSD. He added in an email to the Reporter that several drivers test dates have been moved up to the beginning of next month, meaning more bus routes could be created earlier than expected.
In lieu of a permeant solution, EWSD has been working on a few temporary fixes to ease parents’ struggles to find transportation as the school year begins.
Donahue said over 1,000 responses to ridership surveys sent out by the district helped the transportation team come up with alternatives for students without transportation options, especially those in rural areas.
One solution includes a fleet of district-owned minivans driven by teachers and EWSD staff members, who will be paid extra for their work in the mornings and afternoons. Donahue said that deploying these minivans, consolidating routes and having EHS students utilize free GMT buses could get service to all of rural Essex Town on the first day of school.
He also noted the district is still offering free parking passes to all EHS students, with increased capacity at the school and extra traffic attendants hired for the first week.
Donahue held an information session last week on the status of busing to address parents’ concerns. After the presentation, EWSD transportation manager, Jamie Smith, and school board members joined Donahue to field questions and comments from parents.
Many were frustrated with the lack of communication and more last-minute changes, forcing them to scramble for alternative ways to get their children to school.
“My son’s going to be a junior at this high school and his anxiety level is through the roof,” one parent said. “Getting on a bus, a city bus, has made him so nervous in the last week, it’s unreal.”
“You didn’t plan a ‘plan b’ or a ‘plan c,’ you’re working on that now,” another parent said. “I’m hoping it’s a Band-Aid fix, that it’s not the go-to for the rest of the year.”
Safety was another major concern. Parents who live on roads without sidewalks worried about their children having to walk to consolidated stops, especially during the winter, when they say sidewalks in their area are never plowed or sanded in time for school.
Donahue assured the audience the district would work with individuals based on the ridership survey to ensure no child would be put in danger, and he told the Reporter that EWSD was collaborating with the town and village to ensure safety.
“The municipal government now has all our existing routes in their geographic information system (GIS),” he wrote in an email. “This will allow us to work hand-in-hand with their maps for snow clearing, infrastructure projects and street maintenance.”
Some parents wondered why the district won’t switch back to the old start times, which would make more buses available until more drivers could be hired. But with a week left until school started, Donahue said it was too late.
“It’s just going to have another group of people in the auditorium, right?” he said.
School officials have said the decision to change start times has been years in the making and was initially supposed to help bus more efficiently. Donahue explained that an hour gap between the start times for the district’s youngest and oldest students should have allowed for buses to be reused for a second route in the morning and afternoon.
With the number of bus drivers still lagging, the district created combined bus routes as a temporary solution to reach more students. Doing so meant longer bus rides, however, leaving not enough time to reuse the buses.
It’s also meant longer bus rides than normal for some students, only adding to parents’ frustrations.
“That is not ideal,” said Smith, the transportation manager. “As we build out our system and gain more drivers … then we start to look at who are the students that are on the bus the longest and how do we reduce those times?”
Patrick Murray, EWSD board member, defended aligning start times throughout the district by pointing to its goal of a single curriculum. “It’s so much easier to be able to do this with all of our teachers all being on the same page if they have the same amount of time to teach,” he said.
Families without busing, meanwhile have struggled to find alternatives in time for the first day of school. One parent said she doesn’t know of a single family in the village that can make it work. Another lamented the stress of trying to get her child to school when she’s supposed to be at work.
“I hear a lot of apologies, but as a parent, I want to see some action,” she said.
Donahue said the transportation team is working as hard as they can to alleviate the issues, but he admitted there’s no guarantee on a specific date when enough bus drivers will be hired. He said their focus right now is firming up the contingency plan.
“We’re going to create this microsystem that’s going to be replaced by a 100 percent system and that handoff is going to have to work as smoothly as possible,” he said. But the lack of a guaranteed solution remained a sticking point for some parents.
Donahue has repeatedly apologized for the district’s handling of the saga and again shared his regret during the informational meeting. “I really feel bad for where families are finding themselves,” he told the Reporter.