Bus transportation has been an issue since this summer, with school buses now at capacity students, drivers and parents feeling stressed, Superintendent of Schools Jeff Szymaniak reported during the Wednesday, Oct. 12 meeting of the School Committee.
Szymaniak announced at the meeting that monitors are being added to the district’s “high-impact” buses. He also said he has already had a couple of people volunteer.
“In COVID times we advertised for monitors [but] got no hits,” he said. “This would really be to oversee and assist the bus drivers in maintaining some control over the buses.”
The aim was to have them on board early this week.
The state requires 75 percent capacity on buses to qualify for regional transportation reimbursement, which further complicates the matter. Not every bus needs to be at 75 percent capacity.
A Hanson mother had given an extensive and detailed report during the public comment period about the emotional toll on her children of noisy, crowded buses that are stressing out drivers as well as students.
“Our buses are at capacity in Whitman and we’re a little lighter in Hanson, due to the fact that you have a wider space [in Hanson],” Szymaniak said, noting that initially meant, since Hanson buses had fewer students on them, Transportation Director Karen Villanueva crunched the numbers and Hanson ended up losing four of its 12 buses, he said.
Whitman’s area is about 5 square miles, while Hanson’s is about 15.6 square miles.
“It seems to be an issue at the elementary level with noise,” Szymaniak said. “I think putting more kids on a bus – and we seat them at capacity, which used to be two in a seat. It’s [now] three in a seat by law, by what we can do.”
Assistant Superintendent George Ferro said the goal is to use existing school district staff as monitors.
“It’s people the students recognize – whether it’s paraprofessionals, people who work in the lunch system, whether it’s a teacher or two – our goal is to encourage our staff and to work with out staff so that they can keep those positive relationships, hopefully, going or establish positive relationships so we can get kids home safe and go from there,” Ferro said.
Szymaniak said the district will continue to look at numbers in an effort to make more adjustments.
“Hanson has been affected much more greatly than the town of Whitman,” he said. “These were the numbers we had when we presented our budget … and I absolutely will provide information to the finance committees.”
Whitman Finance Committee member Rosemary Connolly had made a specific request for that information during the meeting’s public forum.
“You did say that Hanson is more impacted, but they are both at capacity, so basically Whitman has consistently been impacted and Hanson is just beginning to feel the same impact … I think is a better way to describe it,” Connolly replied. “We probably should have had the fix of somebody on the bus before.”
Szymaniak thanked Connolly and fellow Whitman Finance Committee member Kathleen Ottina for bringing the bus capacity issue to the district’s attention.
School Committee member Dawn Byers said spreadsheet information available last year showed capacity problems.
“There are elementary schools in the district last year and the year before and the year before … with the same complaints – loud buses, bus drivers pulling over,” she said, indicating her children has similar complaints 10 years ago. “It’s consistently been that way for Whitman schools. … Something has to be fixed.”
She said the average ridership for Indian Head Schools 12 buses had been an average of 38 students and she asked about any savings. Conley School, with a similar number of students has eight buses serving the school.
Szymaniak said there was a $55,000 savings overall by moving tiers of bus routes, which is where distance traveled enters the equation.
“If that’s the past, now that we know what we need to do going forward, I’m hopeful that your solution of monitors on the buses will provide kids a safe and comfortable ride,” Committee member Fred Small said, addressing Szymaniak, who said he would like to put monitors on every bus.
“Right now, we’re going to hit the high-impact buses we’re having issues with,” Szymaniak said.
Chair Christopher Howard noted that there appears to be a “host of problems:” size of towns, bus routes were changed, post-pandemic concerns – “a whole bunch of moving parts to this issue.”
“You have to have an opportunity to manage and figure it out, but at the same time, I’m not sure I’m excited or comfortable about waiting until a November meeting to address the issue, ” he said to Szymaniak, asking what he saw as the next step and how he wanted to proceed. “This seems to be an issue that’s been here since the beginning of school.”
Szymaniak said the monitors are a solution he can control.
“I can’t control the reimbursables, I can’t control the routes right now,” he said.
He said he has heard from elementary-level educators that it’s taking time for children to learn to resocialize following the pandemic and more kids on a bus raises the noise and anxiety level.
Szymaniak said he would need the time until the November meeting to work the problem and Howard encouraged people with questions to email them to the superintendent.
Hanson School Committee member Hillary Kniffen suggested another short-term aid would be to communicate with families how they should be helping adjust their children’s behavior on the bus.
Ferro also gave the annual MCAS report. While scores had been higher pre-pandemic, he said trends are now heading upward again, based on a three-year overview of scores.
“The state has basically said COVID is over,” he said. “They said you now have accountability status once again beginning this year for those schools that will get it. … This is the baseline year.”
There were no exams in 2020 because of COVID and, in the last two years there was a dip in reading scores, but math is already improving. The district is also conducting a curriculum analysis to identify strengths and areas where improvement is needed.
“We are still behind [standards] but we are making gains,” Ferro said.