Carting kids to activities such as karate and dance classes, as well as letting them go home with friends, has been a standard part of the New Paltz schools transportation system for 29 years. However, the challenges of this ongoing pandemic have gotten administrators asking if it’s time to stop letting kids switch buses once and for all. While some school board trustees aren’t convinced that this flexibility in busing should be abandoned altogether, all of them agreed that this coming school year is not the time to resume that system.
Superintendent Angela Urbina-Medina laid out the reasons why this is a worrisome aspect of the dismissal process. Parents may request that their children be allowed to take a different bus at the end of the day, and there’s no limit on how often this may occur. It’s understood that these bus passes are subject to their being room on the bus in question, but that’s never been an issue. However, the passes are not centralized in any way — for example, they are written by the classroom teacher for elementary school students — and that’s where it gets complicated. Bus drivers are responsible for all of the children being transported from when they get on until they leave the vehicle. When a child boards a different bus, the driver must confirm the details on the bus pass; when a large number of kids are heading to the same activity, this can cause delays in everybody heading home; Urbina-Medina said that four out of five dismissals are delayed due to this process. No one leaves until all the students are confirmed as being on the correct bus. At the other end of the trip it can also get dicey, because for the youngest ones there’s supposed to be a responsible adult meeting them at the stop. At a dance studio there might be a staff member waiting to take all the kids inside, but when the destination is a friend’s house or another location, there may not even be that much of a hand-off. No one can say that a child has ever been lost or that anything else bad has happened, but school principals and transportation officials think about these possibilities.
When the regular teacher is out, the superintendent said, this duty is a difficult one for substitutes to manage. What’s more, parents familiar with the process might email or text a teacher who isn’t even in the building asking for a pass, since they don’t necessarily know when a substitute will be on duty instead. Apparently, the email system doesn’t afford access to substitutes to messages that may be pertinent to what’s going on in that classroom on that particular day. This leaves the door open to a child being put on the bus to home, when parents have reason to believe that the student will be going someplace entirely different. No one will be there to meet them when they arrive on the bus. All told, Urbina-Medina calls this system “fraught with angst and the potential to go awry.”
It’s clear that the coronavirus pandemic is not over, as the Delta variant has been quite active in Ulster County. Taking students who have been carefully kept apart and mixing them together on different buses each day is not what the superintendent feels is a responsible way to manage public health. It’s also reasonable to expect that the rules around transportation, such as how many children may be on a bus at one time, could change frequently and suddenly during the upcoming school year.
While pandemic impacts are the most pressing concern, Urbina-Medina would like to see this free-wheeling system shelved permanently. In its place, the superintendent is recommending that bus passes only be issued for children who are being dropped off at an after-care program, or at a parent’s place of employment. As with the scheme now in place, this only applies to locations that are within the school district.
Teresa Thompson quickly identified problems with this proposal. A parent might sign children up for gymnastics or rock-climbing as an after-care program, Thompson pointed out. If this kind of rule is implemented, other parents could simply claim that a particular after-school activity serves in lieu of day care. “What is this really solving?”
On the other hand Diana Armstead was clear that just because it’s been done this way for a long time doesn’t in any way make it a responsibility of district officials to continue. Sharifa Carbon, who oversees business matters in the district, chimed in to point out that state aid isn’t provided for every trip, only those to approved locations. In short, this can cost money that won’t come back. Carbon added, “I implore you to at least allow us to press pause.” The additional risk of exposure would strain a system that’s stretched thin by a low number of available substitute drivers and aides.
Board president Bianca Tanis mused that since this has been standard operating procedure for decades, business owners schedule classes and activities based on when those buses arrive; they could just start the sessions later in the day. Thompson found that approach to be inequitable, noting that it privileges those parents who are available to shuttle their youngsters about and aren’t relying on this system to provide care during work hours. Tanis acknowledged that parents who are forced to pay for day care might not also be able to afford those activities any longer.
The sense around the table, then, is that these drop-offs should not be part of the system during this next pandemic year, but that administrators should plan to modernize the system to plug the holes that are creating much of the stress felt by those in charge.