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For Whom The Bells Toll

The epidemic of the school bus driver shortage and its impact on students’ education appears as a never-ending story to which school officials are trying feverishly to write a final chapter.

The effects of the shortage, which student transporters say is not new to the industry, has been exacerbated to the extreme by the onslaught of the COVID-19 pandemic, and the outcomes have been well-documented in the national media—students are chronically late for school or stranded at their bus stops, resulting in lost instruction time. This is compounded by distraught parents who must adjust their work schedules to transport their children to and from school. The list goes on.

Meanwhile, some enterprising school districts are hoping that the panacea to the problem is a combination of changing bell times for the start of school and adding tiers to their bus runs to get the most from their dwindling transportation resources. A tier is an additional run using the same bus and driver, but at a later start time.

But those moves come with their own unique set of unintended outcomes, including changing start times for students who walk to school, wreaking logistical havoc on coordinating sports and other extracurricular activities.

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Conventional thinking pre-COVID was that changing bell times is a politically charged issue that can disrupt family routines, alter lifestyles and destabilize communities. And if done at all, bell time changes should be carefully planned and implemented no more often than annually.

In California, the changes have been legislated and starting this summer, school officials must change the school day so high school students do not start school before 8:30 a.m. This must be accomplished by this summer. Texas also mandates that classes for middle schoolers and high school students cannot start before 8:10 a.m. and 8:40 a.m., respectively.

Meanwhile, Pasco County Schools north of Tampa, Florida is changing bell times this month by adding a fourth tier to the transportation scheme. This puts the district in the vanguard of efforts by school districts nationwide to offset the effects of the national shortage of school bus drivers.

Pasco Schools Transportation Director Gary Sawyer said that while the move was not easy, it appears to be working. “By going to a fourth tier, we actually reduced the total number of drivers needed to get the same amount of work done,” Sawyer explained. “It’s a numbers game. If a bus can serve four schools instead of three, you need fewer drivers.”

He said making that determination was the easy part. His staff had to balance the four tiers to use the fewest number of drivers possible in each tier. He said this is where the bell time changes come in because once you place everyone in a bell tier based on the number of buses it would take to service their school, transportation had to coordinate the four tiers to make sure the buses could get through the runs on time.

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“And if they can’t, you have to move things around to the point where they can get things done on time,” Sawyer added. “Sometimes you have to add some buses back or reduce more. We have been working on that process now since probably late September, looking at what we thought we could save, and we expected to save from 60 to 65 drivers.”

Sawyer said he transports about half of the district’s total enrollment of 81,700 students over 421 bus routes. Most buses serve three schools, though the longer routes only serve two schools.

“The bell times for every school changed, so even the kids who walk to school are impacted,” he noted. “We backed up some schools by 20 minutes and some schools about 30 minutes to get everything done. Everybody still has the same [instructional] minutes in their school day, which has not changed, just the start times.

“We believe that this will allow us to move back to consistent route times and that students will arrive at school on time, which is the most important part of our job,” he continued, adding that it’s not to say the buses will never be late again. “But when you’re consistently late with a lot of buses it’s just poor service. So that is the goal. Is there any of us that truly like this plan? No, we don’t. But I’m not going to see 80 drivers drop out of the sky any time soon either. And I don’t know of any other plan that would get students to school on time. That’s the bottom line.”

Sawyer said the school board has approved the four-tier plan for the remainder of the school year. The issue will be revisited in May.

“We may move some bell times around or they may say it’s time to go back to three tiers. That’s the school board’s decision,” he said. “The goal as of now is to return to the three-tier system at some point, we just don’t know when we can do that.”

Sawyer further acknowledged that changing bell times is a difficult task at best when initiated during the summer with adequate lead time, but to do it during the school year was especially ambitious. “It would be disruptive anytime you do it, but the perception is that it is especially disruptive in the middle of the school year,” Sawyer admitted. “For us to do this and reroute the county was a mammoth undertaking because staff had their regular jobs to do in addition because it was during the school year. After the dust settles maybe everyone will say if nothing else, we are getting the kids to school on time.”

After switching to a four-tiered transportation system to address a student problem he encountered when he arrived at the Goose Creek Consolidated Independent School District near Houston 12 years ago, Rick Waltersheid went against the grain at the start of this school year by switching back to a three tiered system to help solve a staffing problem. The district was losing teachers who were tired of working late hours associated with the four-tier system.

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Waltersheid, who is the director of transportation and special projects, said in essence that as problems evolve, so must solutions. He also stressed communications with the community.

“We looked at bell schedules and said we will recommend going to a three-tier system and make it as efficient as possible,” Waltersheid recalled. “As long as you do that and meet the expectations of the community, it’s harmony. There has to be communication between you and the community. That’s expectations and reality.”

Waltersheid said additional developments that contributed to the return to the three-tier system included the state-mandated extension of the school day, the growth of additional programs, and the desire of the community for the junior high students to get out of school earlier. He said that made it easier to make dental appointments, go shopping and attend sporting events without getting home late, all of which and more are also priorities for parents.

“While everyone lauds a four-tier system, to me that is where you start and then you bring it down,” Waltersheid said. “You’ve got to see which system will work for you. Sometimes we are in such a hurry to catch up, we don’t analyze the data. If you do not have the ability to analyze it, ask someone for help.

“That’s where you’re going to save your money, in human capital, in dollars, in increased students’ education abilities,” he continued. “You’ll make the family unit more harmonious, and teachers are happier. If your bell schedules have stayed the same, count yourself fortunate, but if you’re not looking at [bell schedules] you don’t know if you’re fortunate or cursed.”

Extracurricular Activities

An erstwhile victim of the unintended collateral damage caused by changing bell times and bus routes are sports and other extracurricular activities, although their accommodation can be planned for.

Florida’s Sawyer said neither football nor other athletic teams will receive preferential treatment when it comes to the availability of buses after school. He said high schoolers are in tiers one and two so there should not be a problem with transportation home from practices or to games.

“Middle schools have athletics but not to the level of high schools,” Sawyer said. “Now we typically say we can start after school field trips at 4:45 p.m. but that time will have to be adjusted. We have not decided yet, but it will probably be between 5:15 and 5:30 when we can cover field trips. The reality is I might have buses that do not have a tier four run and they could potentially take earlier field trips but that would be a special request. It would be first come first serve but the bulk of our after-school trips are athletic in nature.”

Meanwhile, Waltersheid said the trickledown effect of bell changes impacts sports, and he again stressed the importance getting good data to make good decisions in the face of changing priorities.

“When we first did the four-tier system, we had the high school going in first. Now the wind of change is saying we want high school to start later and sleep in because of the educational needs, so that’s a whole new dynamic now because [while] we would be letting out that junior high campus, all the high schoolers are needing to go to their athletic events,” he explained. “So, we have that new dynamic and how it all plays into bell schedules. The first step is you’ve got to gather all the data. Routing is trash in and trash out. You get the right data and you put good [data] in and great will come out.”

Editor’s Note: As reprinted in the January 2022 issue of School Transportation News.

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