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School buses less crowded

Districts see fewer students riding transport after restart

Submitted photo Community Bus Services drivers Tammy Prinkey, far left, and John Helsel hand off preschool students, from left, Blake Tibbs, Lyra Braun and Erika Mayle to teachers Jessica Logan, second from right, and Lynne Neff, far right, Friday, at Warren’s Jefferson PK-8 School.

Now that schools are open, districts have had to adjust to new rules, schedules and finding ways to socially distance their sometimes hyperactive young charges while transporting them to and from buildings.

Youngstown, at least for the first nine weeks, eliminated busing issues because the district chose to go fully online.

But the city district still transports 542 students to other, non-public schools that have children living within the Youngstown City School District. The number of students to and from these schools may change, however, based on their enrollments.

Other area districts, such as Niles and Warren, are operating blended or hybrid systems in which half of their students attend school in person two days per week and a second group attends school on alternate days.

The alternative schedules crafted during this COVID-19 pandemic have helped reduce the number of students on the buses at any one time.

FEWER RIDERS

The average school bus in Warren can hold 52 students, said Stephen Macali, a Warren City Schools driver for eight years. He said now the buses are carrying half that number — sometimes even fewer — on most routes.

Warren transports about 2,750 students per day on its buses. Last year, it transported 3,600.

In addition to having fewer students on the buses because of the blended school schedules, about one-third of Warren students are taking online classes only, and about 10 percent of the students who would have taken buses are being driven by parents and other family members.

“I am surprised how easy it has gone,” Macali said. “The kids have kept their masks on and have been very cooperative, even the younger kids.”

Macali said the time required to transport students is about the same as it was last year. It takes more time for drivers to complete their day, however, because they clean buses between routes.

The buses are sprayed with an electrostatic sprayer.

John Lacy, Warren schools business manager, said bus drivers have the flexibility of working even longer hours this year because the district is picking up and delivering meals to various sites around the city.

“I know some districts have been having problems getting substitute drivers, but we only lost one driver — who was 70 years old — to retirement,” Lacy said. “We, in fact, added four drivers this year.”

According to the Mahoning County Educational Service Center website, the Mahoning County Career and Technical Center has openings for bus drivers, while both Boardman and Austintown have positions for drivers and substitute drivers.

The Trumbull County Educational Service Center’s website shows openings for drivers in LaBrae, Girard, Hubbard, Mathews and Southington, as well as three in Niles and two in Lordstown.

Even with the drivers working increased hours, the Warren district is spending less on transportation this year because it is using fewer substitute drivers.

Warren’s transportation budget is $4.2 million. It has spent $566,000 in the first quarter, or 13.2 percent. Typically, about a quarter of the budget is spent in the first quarter.

Ta’kya Williams, 18, a senior at Warren G. Harding High School, has been riding the district’s buses throughout her time in the district.

“There’s a lot less people on them,” she said. “It’s different. I kind of like the change.”

Williams is transported to and from school in the district at least two days per week. On other days, the students remain at their homes and take classes online.

WORKS IN NILES

Niles Superintendent Ann Marie Thigpen and transportation supervisor Dawn Carkido said the district has not had any problems since school started.

The district has 10 buses and has 11 drivers.

“Our students and their parents are doing everything we have asked them to do,” Carkido said. “Parents are taking their children’s temperatures at home before they allow their children to approach the buses, and students are sanitizing their hands as they get on them.”

Niles has been operating as a blended school district.

Because only half the number of students are riding on the buses at any one time, the number of students per vehicle is averaging between 20 to 25 per route. There are 25 routes.

Bus drivers drive two hours in the morning and two hours in the afternoon.

“The pandemic has not significantly increased the amount of time drivers are on their routes,” Carkido said. “There may be more time taken at end of each route, because of the time it takes for students to get into the doors of the buildings.”

Niles has thermal cameras that take student temperatures as they enter the school buildings.

Like Warren, Thigpen said her district has about 450 students who decided to take classes from their homes, which has reduced the number of student riders.

“We also have more parents driving their children,” Thigpen said.

She said the district has had some of its drivers retire, so the district’s costs have been lowered.

COST EFFECTIVE

Ryan Dunn, director of transportation for the Boardman Local School District, said fewer students are riding its buses.

“We already were looking at ways to make our routes more efficient and cost effective,” Dunn said. “We were looking at combining junior high and high school routes. This has sped up that process.”

Dunn said the district has about 4,000 students. The district has about 40 percent fewer students riding the district’s buses than prior to the pandemic, he said.

About a third of the district’s students is taking classes on a remote basis only. Another 20 percent is getting rides to and from their schools.

“Even when we get through this period, I would like to keep the hand sanitizers on the buses,” Dunn said. “We may not have to do as much cleaning of the buses between routes.”

Boardman has 56 routes that its drivers travel.

Lordstown School District has about 85 percent of its students taking classes in their buildings five days per week.

The school district began classes on Sept. 2. The district has five buses.

“It has been fairly smooth,” Superintendent Greg Bonamase said. “We load our kids from the back to the front to reduce them passing one another.”

Bonamase said if a driver notices a child may be sick, the child will be placed behind the bus driver during the ride. Once at the school, the child is sent to the nurse’s office to be checked.

SUBSTITUTES

“Our biggest issue has been finding substitute bus drivers,” Bonamase said. “It has been more difficult this year than in previous years.”

Lordstown purchased two foggers to clean the district’s buses.

“Both our students and staff have had positive attitudes since coming back to school,” he said. “We are a small district, we have more than enough room in our busses.”

Bonamase said the district has shortened the school day by a half hour to clean buildings and help remote learners.

The 1,800 students in the West Branch Schools in Mahoning County are attending in-building classes five days per week. Approximately 300 of the district’s students have chosen remote learning.

“Except for having fewer students on the buses and requiring social distancing and the wearing of masks, it has been about the same,” Micki Egli, acting superintendent, said.

The district has 18 buses. The district only lost one driver to retirement.

“We, like other districts, are looking for substitute drivers,” she said.

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