As three yellow school buses embarked on their maiden voyage through Essex Jct. last week, local school district officials could finally breathe a sigh of relief. That’s because, while Essex Westford School District’s transportation expansion has been defined by its failures, the new service’s roll out felt to some like a true sign of progress: Three years later, busing had arrived to the village.
“It’s really an impressive day of work,” said board member Patrick Murray, who has been one of the most vocal advocates for the village busing expansion. “I wish it could have happened a little sooner than this, but all of those bumps mean that when we finally got it, I think we got it right.”
Murray noted he no longer has to make the four daily trips across Five Corners to drop off and pick up his daughter, and said he’s heard from other people who feel like traffic has dipped slightly thanks to less parents driving their kids to school.
“Personally, it’s been such a big relief,” he said of the new service. “Everything I’ve seen for the most part has been very thankful.”
Feedback from parents in a public Essex Facebook group was equally positive — a stark contrast to the tone of discussions seen over the last several years. Numerous parents said they appreciated the new service even after their children experienced some of the system’s early hiccups.
Of course, that doesn’t mean everyone is happy, acknowledged EWSD transportation manager Jamie Smith, who for the last year has overseen the busing expansion.
“There’s always some folks who are disappointed that it’s not the end all be all, and that they have a little bit longer walking distance than they had expected, or their kid is getting picked up earlier and later than they wanted,” Smith said.
Indeed, with the village buses replacing routes that previously picked up town high school students, the new service has rippled through the district’s transportation system: Town high schoolers who live outside of the Green Mountain Transit walking zones must now ride buses that primarily serve K-8 students, while some of the district’s youngest students must transfer buses before arriving at school. Meantime, pick up and drop off times across the system remain a source of concern, with some students not arriving home until nearly 5 p.m.
“Because of the resources that we have, we’re going to have some of that stuff that’s less than ideal,” Smith said. Still, he too has fielded mostly positive feedback from the community, he said. And while he noted a few “kinks” typically expected of the first couple of days — kids getting on the wrong bus, for example — he expects those problems will sort out as students learn how to use the new system and drivers get more comfortable.
Smith said it’s too early to judge the district’s success in encouraging families to use the buses. Ridership data has been relatively low thus far, but that’s not out of the ordinary for any start to the school year: Many parents choose to drive their kids to school on the first day of school, he said, whether to help acclimate them to the new routine or grab some keepsake pictures.
Over the next few weeks, Smith and his team will examine the routes to ensure they’re running as expected. They will also perform a ridership survey.
Using that information, plus insights from bus drivers, parents and school staff, the district plans to roll out some modifications in early October. “Those adjustments could be a tweak to the rights or lefts in the routes, a tweak of a stop location or just cleaning up our pick up and drop off times,” Smith said. He didn’t expect any major changes.
Smith, like many district officials tasked with working on the busing expansion, has spent countless hours puzzling over how to provide the best bus service. Yet despite the frustrations — or maybe because of them — Smith expressed excitement over seeing the village service finally up and running.
“The people that I work with — principals and school staff — they all understand what a term tremendous undertaking this is,” he said. “The overwhelming vibe within our district is positive: Everybody is coming at this with sunshine and support. I am so grateful.”