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The beginning of the school year means new books and homework for students.
It means a head scratcher for administrators and bus drivers in charge of carting more than 10,000 Hardin County Schools students and more than 1,000 Elizabethtown Independent School District students to and from school every day.
School system employees have to find ways to make sure students, especially kindergartners, get where they’re supposed to safely weeks after determining how to divide routes.
The process begins at open houses, during which parents learn about bus procedure and can obtain information about their children’s buses, stops, and pickup and release times.
That information also is available on the school district’s websites and by contacting the system offices or individual schools.
After all that preparation, some students still get missed, said John Skaggs, director of Hardin County Schools’ transportation department.
Route planners have to see which streets were left off of maps and make sure those students are picked up in the future. They also have to adjust routes to accommodate overcrowding.Skaggs said there’s no law against students standing on a school bus because of lack of room, but neither school district wants that to happen.
It’s even harder getting adjustments right during the first few weeks of school because many parents drive children to school during that time, he said.
Nate Huggins, assistant superintendent for student and support services for Elizabethtown Independent Schools, said his school system faces a new challenge this year of accommodating about 100 more students on buses than usual because fewer parents drive their children to school when gas prices increase.
The increased number of riders isn’t causing crowding, he said.
One of he biggest challenges for both systems during the early days of a school year is making sure that new, young riders don’t have trouble on the buses.
They wear identification tags to help school employees and bus drivers get them on the right buses and off at the right stops.
Huggins said kindergartners are only released off buses to their guardians.
Skaggs said only preschoolers are required to be released into a guardian’s custody, but bus drivers are told to not drop a child off if a situation makes them feel uncomfortable, such as when a parent’s car isn’t in the driveway.
If children aren’t on the buses or at the stops where they’re supposed to be, radio calls go out for drivers to check their buses and find them.
Sometimes, things still go wrong.
Lisa Rich of Elizabethtown said she told Elizabethtown Independent School District administrators and board of education members that bus drivers should walk their buses immediately after dropping off their last students.
Rich said her daughter, Katelan, didn’t come home on a bus when she was supposed to on the day she began kindergarten at Helmwood Heights Elementary School on Cardinal Drive.
The girl had been loaded onto the wrong bus, despite having an identifying tag listing her bus.
This past Monday, Katelan was discovered still on the bus after her older sister noticed the girl wasn’t at the after-school care program she was expected to attend.
Rich said the bus driver said the girl wasn’t on the bus and didn’t find her until he walked to the back of the bus to do a last check for students.
“To me, that is too long for a 5-year-old that just started kindergarten to be on the bus,” she said.
Rich said there are too many stories in the news about the things that can happen to children for bus drivers and officials to not be completely aware of where students are.
“It’s really sad. I’ve got tears in my eyes,” she said. “So many things could happen.”
Katelan is riding in one of the front seats on her bus now, Rich said.
Huggins said he wasn’t in the office at the time the girl didn’t get off at the after-school program, but he understands why Rich was upset. It makes sense for a mother to be concerned about her young child, he said.
The good news is that the system for recovering the child worked in the end because she never made it off the bus and into potential danger and she was found before the driver got off the bus, he said.
Students of all ages sometimes fall asleep or don’t pay attention to stops when riding a bus, Huggins and Skaggs said.
It’s hard for drivers to catch stragglers because they have to watch the road, and the bus seats are too high to see small children, they said.
Both school districts have buses outfit with a system that requires drivers to walk to the backs of their buses to pull a lever to prevent alarms from sounding when the buses are turned off. That requires drivers to make a last check for students before their route is completely finished.
Huggins and Skaggs said it takes organization to get students to school and home with as few mix-ups as possible.
Huggins said the tightly controlled routine gets easier, including for young children, as the school year progresses.
“Today was better than yesterday,” he said.
Amber Coulter can be reached at (270) 505-1746 or firstname.lastname@example.org.