Hundreds of students from Irvine Unified School District in Southern California were stranded in the San Bernardino Mountains, where a snowstorm kept them from returning home from science camp. Once again, school buses as well as continued communication and teamwork came to the rescue to safely transport those 650 students home.
Background on Irvine USD
Carla Dupuis, administrator of transportation for Irvine Unified School District, explained that the district contracts out all of its transportation services to outside vendors, consisting of school buses, motorcoaches and recliner vehicles. She noted that Durham School Services provides the district with its home-to-school routes as well as some field trips. However, she said once Durham hits its capacity in terms of school buses and drivers, she calls on other outside vendors, such as Certified Transportation, which helps with field trips and some home-to-school routes as well.
She added that something unique about the Irvine USD and Durham relationship is that they are housed in the building and have access to each other at all times. “That makes for a unique situation because most school sites that work with contractors, they’re off site and they don’t have immediate contact with them,” she said. “Having them here, on site, that kind of partnership makes all the difference.”
Especially with communication she said, which she noted was a huge advantage in attempting to retrieve students from the mountain.
The students left for the camp on Saturday, Feb. 21. However, by mid-morning of the following Wednesday, there were reports of a “monster storm” heading toward the San Bernardino Mountains, which are located about 80 miles to the northeast, Carla Dupuis, administrator of transportation for Irvine Unified School District, explained.
Local news reported referred to the storm “rare,” as it resulted in the first blizzard warning called by the National Weather Service for the area in 30 years.
“That’s when we collectively got together with the principals and elementary superintendents and tried to strategize on how quickly we can get students off the mountain,” Dupuis recalled, adding that it was determined that Thursday, Feb. 23 would be the day to bring the students home. “We gathered all of our forces, school buses, motorcoaches and recliner vehicles, and we headed to the base of the mountain.”
Unfortunately, she said the mountain was still deemed unsafe for travel, even for commercial vehicles, and all roads were closed. District officials returned to the base of the mountain on Friday, only to be turned away again. On Saturday, Feb. 25, they tried again, and Dupuis said it was still unsafe to travel.
Several additional feet of snow fell that weekend, causing San Bernardino County to declare a local emergency — one of 13 counties in the state to do so. Some locations in the county received 100 to 150 inches of snow in a week, the Washington Post reported.
Dupuis said on Sunday, an army of school buses, transit and wheelchair buses as well as motorcoaches and box trucks returned to the base of the mountain and waited for 14 hours before being allowed to proceed and retrieve the children on Monday, Feb. 27.
Carla Dupuis, administrator of transportation for Irvine Unified School District, was a school bus driver for 25 years before becoming an administrator. As a driver, she had her mountain driving certification. While not mandatory for the school bus drivers contracted with Irvine Unified to be certified in mountainous driving, she said the certification is optional. And while the district offer’s incentives to become mountain certified, she said many drivers opt out of driving in those conditions, due mostly to fear.
She said this was a concern as she was reaching out to districts and vendors for help, as mountain-certified drivers are in short supply. To obtain the certification, drivers must go through additional classroom and behind-the-wheel training.
Dupuis said she was calling anyone and everyone to see how many buses, vehicles and drivers could be lent to the effort. She said in addition to contractor Durham School Services, Certified Transportation out of Santa Ana, California as well as motorcoach vendor Lux Bus America responded. She also reached out to Hemet Unified School District, which was key as she said all of their drivers are mountain-class certified. Rim of the World Unified School District, in the Crestline area, also assisted in helping to get the students home, despite its own fleet being buried under 9 feet of snow.
“It was all hands on deck,” she said. “Vendors and school districts coming together to make it happen for our students.”
She said in total they utilized nine transit-style Durham school buses and nine small Durham wheelchair buses for luggage as well as six Certified Transportation school buses and six Certified Transportation recliners. Additionally, they used eight Lux Bus America vehicles, three Fernando Tours Inc., recliners, five Hemet Unified School buses, two Rim of the World Unified School District buses, and three 24-passenger First Student school buses.
When speaking with STN, Dupuis said her staff was still trying to get all student luggage down from the mountain. While she had yet to debrief with her staff, she said going forward the district will be making decisions based on travel two weeks in advance.
Related: Author, Speaker LeMon Remembered for School Bus Safety Advocacy
Related: California District Talks Positives, Challenges of Electric School Buses
Related: California Student Transporters Dry Off from Record Rainfall
Related: Be Prepared When Flooding Impacts School Buses
Related: Florida School Districts Relied on Resiliency to Rebound from Hurricane Ian