Schools battling early-year bus problems

The first weeks of the school year have been a bumpy ride for several school districts as busing problems have seen some students not picked up for school, brought home late, or forgotten on buses for hours.

At Tuesday’s launch of the new Kleptz Early Learning Center, Northmont schools had major problems getting 850 preschool, kindergarten and first-grade students home on time. The school day ends at 3:50 p.m., and some parents called police when their students weren’t home by 6 p.m.

Superintendent Sarah Zatik cited “an array of problems,” including a jumbled dismissal process, confusion on which students were actually riding the bus, and what bus drivers were supposed to do if no adult was waiting at the bus stop.

“I understand (parents’) fear and their anger, and I don’t blame them,” Zatik said. “This was our fault, and shame on us. … We’ve made significant progress (since Tuesday), making sure we correct this. On Wednesday, all of our buses had left school by 4:12 and were back to the school or the garage by 5:15.”

Busing glitches are not uncommon at the start of each school year, according to Mike Martin, executive director of the National Association for Pupil Transportation.

“School transportation, like everything else in world, is becoming much more technology based, but it’s still a system that depends on human beings,” Martin said. “The expectation that the public has is extraordinarily high because the kids are in our care.”

The most serious issues this week were in Dayton and Miamisburg schools, where parents said drivers left young children on their buses when they finished their routes.

Saleen Nolan of Dayton said she put her 3-year-old son, Benjamin McDonald, on his bus at 8:30 a.m. Wednesday outside their home. She was on the phone with his teacher at River’s Edge Montessori early in the afternoon when she learned he wasn’t at school.

District transportation officials found the boy, who wears hearing aids, still on the bus more than four hours after he was picked up. According to Nolan the boy was sweating and had had nothing to eat or drink.

“He was on the bus the entire time,” Nolan said. “Somebody walked past the bus and heard him screaming and crying. If it was a little hotter, or if he would have stayed on there a little longer, or if I wouldn’t have talked to his teacher, what would have happened?”

The Miamisburg case involved a kindergarten student who reportedly fell asleep on the bus and was found later at the bus garage. Miamisburg Superintendent David Vail said the district has clear procedures about checking all seats before putting up the “empty bus” sign, and their investigation will check which of those steps were followed.

Both Vail and Dayton Public Schools spokeswoman Melissa Fowler said their districts had placed the drivers on leave pending further investigation. In the Dayton case, an aide who was also on the bus is on leave as well.

“Leaving a child on a school bus, as far as the industry’s concerned, is just completely unacceptable,” Martin said. “There is no excuse for that. … A lot of schools have zero tolerance for that, and I’m sure that driver is going to suffer consequences.”

A Lebanon schools bus driver has already resigned after an Aug. 25 incident in which he was accused of making students sit with the windows up in hot weather as a punishment for being unruly.

In Vandalia, the issue was more high-tech. The district contracts their busing to an outside company, First Student, Inc., placing it among about 25 percent of districts nationally that have privatized bus service. But when student information was sent from the district to the bus company this fall, almost 300 addresses were lost. The glitch left bus drivers with bad information on the locations of bus stops and routes last month, causing delays for many students.

Ellen Brewer, whose great-granddaughter attends Vandalia-Butler schools, said the delays caused problems, especially in families where both parents work. She said buses were late four times in a six-day period, but have been much better in the past week.

Zatik listed a litany of problems Northmont faced on Tuesday. Many parents came to school to pick up students who had been scheduled to ride buses, delaying those buses’ departure. A small number of students had traded name tags and the switches were not caught, resulting in students getting on wrong buses. Some students fell asleep on the bus home, and did not respond when called for their stop. Northmont requires an adult to be at the bus stop to meet the young children, and some drivers waited at stops for adults to arrive, causing more delays.

Zatik said the district also underestimated how long it would take to organize 14 buses full of 4- to 7-year-olds.

“People thought we didn’t have a plan, and that’s not the case at all,” Zatik said. “Sometimes you have a plan, and it just doesn’t work like you thought it would. So you have to revise and figure out how to improve, and that’s what we did.”

Northmont parent Daniel Woodard said he waited at his kindergartener’s bus stop for two hours Tuesday, calling to find out where his son was until he got home just after 6 p.m. Woodard said that by later in the week his son was getting home at about 4:50, still 15 minutes behind schedule but much better than Tuesday.

Woodard suggested Northmont invest in tracking devices used by schools in Boston and elsewhere that allow parents to use a smartphone to follow the progress of their bus. Martin said there is extensive technology available, including RFID sensors on buses that can read a card in a student’s backpack, recording when the child gets on and off the bus.

Zatik said Northmont will look into the technology, but she cautioned that she didn’t yet know yet how much such technology could cost.

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