DELMAR — The ongoing bus driver shortage that has plagued school districts across the nation will have an impact upon the Bethlehem Central High School schedule, the district said on Thursday, Sept. 2.
For the first 10 weeks of the school year, high school students will start school at 7:35 a.m. rather than the 8 a.m. start time that was in place last year.
The schedule change for the first quarter is the result of a critical bus driver shortage impacting Bethlehem and school districts nationwide. The new bell schedule for students in grades 9-12 at the high school will be in place through Friday, Nov. 12.
The change to the high school start time was announced as part of the COVID 2021-22 Return-to-School update provided by Superintendent Jody Monroe to the Board of Education at its September 1 meeting. A shortage of bus drivers and a significant increase in transportation requests for high school students prompted the change.
“We will need our high school families to plan for an earlier start for the first quarter. Our goal is to get all students in all grades back to school every day but to do so we need to address what has quickly become a crisis in transportation,” said Superintendent Jody Monroe. “Our bus driver shortage has been compounded by COVID-19, and now at the high school by a surprise increase in demand for transportation that has forced us to enact this stopgap measure. Without changing the start time for high schoolers, there would be a ripple effect throughout the district.”
Monroe said the district’s Transportation Department had surveyed all district parents over the summer to create a more efficient district routing plan based on actual ridership and projected need. The department was able to identify several route consolidations and efficiencies at the elementary and middle school levels. However, at the high school, ride requests from families increased dramatically, creating a supply and demand issue, especially in the morning.
The district said the influx of requests means that more drivers will be assigned to routes at the high school than usual. More than 52 percent of students have requested transportation in the morning for the start of the new year.
In 2019-20, the district said approximately 35 percent of students would take the bus in the morning on a typical fall day. The district has 59 school bus drivers currently available to meet the transportation needs of students at the district’s seven schools, private and parochial schools and for afterschool activities.
Prior to COVID, the district had more than 80 available drivers.
“There are currently not enough drivers to accommodate the morning runs for a high school start time of 8 a.m. without impacting bus transportation at all grade levels,” said Superintendent Monroe.
Monroe explained that if the district continued with the 8 a.m. start time at the high school, there is not enough time for those drivers to then turn around and cover those routes serving middle school or elementary school. An earlier start time at the high school frees up more drivers to cover all routes.
“We will need to use the first weeks of school to record actual ridership at the high school to see where we can find efficiencies there. Returning to an earlier start time, at least temporarily, is the best solution we have to a difficult situation.”
In addition to examining ridership at the start of the year, the district will also be looking at possibly increasing the walking distance for students to reduce strain on the district’s transportation. At the high school, students are eligible for transportation if they live more than a mile from school; at the middle school, eligibility is one-half mile; and at the elementary level, all students are eligible for transportation.
“We want to be able to preserve the later start time at the high school that we implemented last year. We will spend the next several weeks looking to refine routes, stops and schedules at the high school based on new sets of data so we can get there,” said Monroe. “Unfortunately, that may only be a band-aid at this point when we need much more. Looking ahead, we will be examining our transportation system districtwide, including bell times and eligibility, as a way to ensure long-term stability for student transportation.”
High school families have been contacted regarding the schedule for the start of the year. The district will also provide regular updates regarding the bus driver shortage and transportation as the school year gets underway.
The first day of school for students in grades K-12 is Thursday, Sept. 9.