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Mornings are busy for Mary Jo Douglas with four kids and herself to get ready for the day. She feeds 3-year-old Mason, while 17-year-old Noah heads off to high school. Her two other children, 9-year-old Romeo and 11-year-old David, need to be dressed and ready for school.
They have to be at the bus by 8:35 a.m. On most days, the two kids will wait outside the apartment. On cold and rainy days, the boys wait inside the front office of the apartment complex for a bus that sometimes doesn’t show up.
It’s an all too familiar scene for some York County parents. Since September, Douglas says there has been a pattern in which the bus has arrived more than an hour late or sometimes not at all. Not only are the children arriving late to school, but they are missing breakfast. The problem became such a burden, Douglas took to a public, community Facebook group to voice her concern — and found out she was not alone.
“I am a single mom and it’s hard to have the means to transport them,” Douglas said in an interview with WYDaily. “When this happens, they also miss breakfast at school and class time.”
According to the division’s spokesperson, Katherine Goff, the division has 126 daily bus routes, serving roughly 12,700 students. Those 126 routes are driven by an average of 149 bus drivers including substitutes, when fully staffed.
The school division released a statement suggesting recent staffing problems led to overcrowding on bus routes and late buses. The statement also said the division has received “concerns,” or complaints, from parents regarding busing over the past few weeks.
Waiting on a bus that doesn’t come
Last Thursday morning, the temperature was hovering around 40 degrees Fahrenheit when Romeo arrived at the bus stop, so he waited alone in the office. His brother David was home sick with a stomach bug. The boys typically eat breakfast and lunch at school, as part of the division’s meal program, so Romeo was waiting for breakfast along with the bus.
By 8:40 a.m., the bus had yet to arrive and workers in the complex’s front office grew concerned and called the transportation department, according to the boy’s mother. The transportation department said the bus was running a half-hour late, but when the bus didn’t arrive at 9:10 a.m., the office workers called back twice more. Eventually, they sent Romeo home.
“My nine-year-old was just enjoying the company of the office staff at my complex,” Douglas said. “I can’t imagine it if it was just a street corner. Thank God they took him in and advocated for him. Never was I notified by anyone at the school or bus garage there was an issue.”
The bus ended up arriving at the stop at 9:33 a.m., nearly an hour after it normally arrives and 33 minutes after classes had already begun. Romeo arrived about an hour late to his instruction that day, Douglas said. He had missed school-provided breakfast.
“Kids want to come to school and start their day,” said Jillien Meier, program manager at the national advocacy group No Kid Hungry. “They don’t want to worry about being hungry.”
A noticable pattern
Douglas says the bus has either been late or never arrived almost 20 times since the beginning of the school year. All four of her children attend schools in the York County School Division.
“I called the school to be sure he got there, amidst a mini panic attack,” Douglas said, describing her response Thursday.
Douglas isn’t the only parent with concerns about the state of transportation in the school division. After Douglas expressed her frustration in a post on the York County 411 Facebook group Thursday, nearly 50 area residents commented with similar sentiment, detailing the ways in which busing problems have affected their families.
According to Douglas, who is a former bus driver for the county, the division has been understaffed for the past two years, with two contract bus driver positions and numerous substitute driver positions currently open. The York County School Division did not comment on Douglas’ claim. The shortage of bus drivers has Douglas concerned about the workplace pressures on the division’s drivers.
“I fear these drivers are running under high stress and the students are paying,” Douglas said. “It’s being brushed under a rug…It is out of control.”
The division would like to see 15 percent of its bus driving workforce covered with substitutes, who can pick up work when regular drivers can’t make it into work, Goff said. She added that last month was especially short-staffed, because a higher than average number of drivers called out sick.
On Thursday, the driver who arrived nearly an hour late to pick up Romeo was a substitute and forgot to make the stop, Douglas said. She said the school division later called and apologized for the mishap.
The division has taken steps to “identify solutions” the problem, according to its public statement, and has said it will be communicating any solutions in the future.
“The York County School Division is committed to providing safe and reliable transportation to and from school every day as well as appropriate and timely communication,” the statement read. “Division staff have met to identify solutions to this ongoing concern and will provide more information in the coming days as to how we can better serve our community.”
Concern for safety
As the division works to solve its driver shortage, residents throughout York County have felt the impact. Buffie Tipton, a York County resident, said she was concerned for the safety of her 12-year-old daughter.
“My concern is the student’s safety stemming from overcrowding on the buses due to doubled routes,” Tipton said. “There are reports of 74 children being lumped into one bus run. Just this week, my daughter has informed me that the last three days have been this way.”
York County School Division engages in a practice called “doubling.” When there are too few bus drivers for all the routes, a bus driver adds a second route to his or her own route until the vehicle hits capacity.
Once the bus reaches its state-regulated capacity, the division expects the bus driver to travel to all remaining stops to inform the awaiting children there will be another bus coming rather than allow more children onto the bus, according to a public statement from the division.
York County Board of Supervisors vice-chair Jeffrey Wassmer said he’s been in talks with area parents about the division’s busing issues. Wassmer said the county owes it to residents to take care of kids’ safely.
“The best possible solution is one that makes the most use of taxpayer’s money, but gets the job done safely and efficiently,” Wassmer said.
Douglas thinks the problem can be fixed, but it starts with school officials listening to parents.
“I just wanted a situation that’s clearly out of control for many parents, students and the drivers to be heard,” Douglas said. “And action to reconcile to be taken immediately.”