Westport parents decry bus delays, as administrators try to address problem

Photo of Amanda Cuda
Children arrive for the first day of school at Coleytown Elementary School. Tuesday, Sept. 8, 2020

Children arrive for the first day of school at Coleytown Elementary School. Tuesday, Sept. 8, 2020

Scott Mullin / For Hearst Connecticut Media

WESTPORT — For Jessica Newshel, it’s a tale of two bus routes.

The Westport resident has two children in the town’s school system — a fourth grader at Saugatuck Elementary School and an eighth grader at Bedford Middle School. Newshel said there have been “no problems” with her son’s bus at Bedford.

Her daughter’s bus, the one to and from Saugatuck Elementary School, is a different story.

“Until this week, she had different drivers almost every day — sometimes a different driver in the a.m. than the p.m.,” Newshel said. “I understand and sympathize with the bus driver shortage. I just wish the drivers had access to GPS so that they would be able to follow the route.”

She said, as a result of the substitutions, many kids were coming home late — more than an hour after dismissal in at least one case — and were “tired, hungry and late for extracurriculars.”

Newshel isn’t the only one seeing delays. Other parents also have complained about delays of up to an hour, including Elena Shmonina, who has two 6-year-olds at Coleytown Elementary School. She said, though her children live close to the school, she’s seen delays of 40 minutes to an hour.

Westport’s problems are likely part of a “crippling bus driver shortage” in the state and nation, Westport Superintendent of Schools Thomas Scarice said in statement issued Friday afternoon. The statement addresses several issues in the school district, including the busing delays.

Scarice added the shortage has been compounded by an increase of traffic on local roads. All of this has lead Westport to consolidate routes, and explore “other routing options,” he said.

“Transportation has been a major challenge this year,” he said. “Busing delays and late arrivals have impacted the student school day and led to confusion and anxiety among parents and students.”

Scarice said the district’s transportation provider, Dattco, has been able to staff buses “by reallocating office personnel with the appropriate licensure to serve as drivers.”

“The primary goal is to get all students to and from school on time,” Scarice said. “While consolidating routes could lead to delays, this temporary practice is necessary at this point in time. Our newest drivers are becoming more familiar with our routes, which will enable routes to be completed more quickly. Schools will continue to communicate with parents at first notification that buses will be impacted by consolidation or a driver shortage.”

He added that Dattco is trying to secure more drivers with incentives such as signing bonuses and expedited training for licensure.

The bus issue was discussed in the Oct. 4 Board of Education meeting, during which Westport Public Schools transportation coordinator Buffy Barry presented results of a study she did of the times buses arrived at the end of the day to pick students up. Her study covered the period of Sept. 27 through Oct. 1.

She found that, of the 50 buses and vans she looked at, 2 percent arrived at school shortly before the 3:45 p.m. dismissal time and 68 percent arrived within 15 minutes of dismissal. But the remaining 30 percent arrived outside of that 15-minute window.

In his statement, Scarice stated that “historically, all buses were expected to clear the school yard within 30 minutes of dismissal. Some schools were much quicker than this, and others took the full 30 or so minutes to clear. That standard, applied to our current start times, would estimate that our elementary schools should clear their buses for dismissal by 4:15pm (Saugatuck 3:45). The district is working to ensure that fully staffed buses depart by 4:15 p.m.”

However, he added that combined runs could leave later that 4:15 p.m. “When that is the case, principals will work with our transportation coordinator to provide as much advance notice as possible, with a specific time of departure from the school so parents can plan accordingly,” he said.

Scarice added that the solution is temporary until more drivers can be secured.

Bryony Chamberlain, Dattco’s vice president of school bus, confirmed during a phone conversation that the bus driver shortage is statewide, but that there is light at the end of the tunnel. She said applicants for open bus driver positions fell to 300 in April, but, in September, they rose to close to a thousand.

She said the background clearance time also shortened in September, from 16 weeks to two weeks, which is also helpful.

“We do see a way out, which is good,” Chamberlain said.

In the meantime, she asked people to be patient and compassionate.

“Please don’t take this out on the drivers,” Chamberlain said. “Be kind to the drivers. They’re doing everything they can in a difficult situation.”