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Superintendent Provides Transportation Update to Board of Education
September 10, 2021 -- Columbus City Schools Superintendent/CEO Dr. Talisa Dixon provided an update on transportation services to the Board of Education on Wednesday, September 8, 2021. Here is a transcript of her report. Click here to watch the board meeting.
Superintendent’s Report - Sept. 8, 2021:
Our bus drivers and transportation team are the first and last people many of our students see during their school day. Columbus City Schools bus drivers must complete rigorous training and are critical in ensuring timely and safe pick-up and drop-off of students while maintaining a safe environment for everyone inside the bus.
It’s a duty our team takes seriously.
Since the start of the new school year, we have received several concerns from transportation-eligible families regarding late school buses, buses not picking up students at all, or parents not being able to get through our customer service line to speak with a representative. We know this has been frustrating for our families who are entrusting us with the safety of their students amidst a pandemic.
The transportation team has been and will continue to work diligently to correct these issues, which can stem from many reasons -- the most notable of which is a nationwide shortage of bus drivers. School districts, both large and small, across the country are dealing with the same issue as we are here in Columbus. Even COTA is experiencing a driver shortage that has resulted in reduced services.
The driver shortage is an unfortunate product of the pandemic, but we are tackling it head on to mitigate its impact on our students and their families. We expect many of the issues to get better, but we do not expect to return to the level of service that was possible before the pandemic.
Our drivers are giving 100 percent to ensure students arrive safely at school in the morning and back home in the afternoon. And the transportation team will continue to improve our services to the extent possible.
Here are the strategies that our transportation team is using to address this issue locally:
Our first and most immediate strategy is proactive communications.Our transportation team is committed to improving communication with families. We know that our call center has been overwhelmed with the volume of calls since the start of the school year.
During the first full week of school, we averaged 3,200 calls per day to our customer service line. As a result, we are providing additional support to the call center and at our school buildings to handle the volume of calls and provide timely updates to answer any bus-related questions. Schools will have additional funds to ensure their phone line is staffed after school hours to assist families.
We have also increased communication from the transportation department to our schools to let them know if buses will be late, which will allow schools to communicate more proactively and effectively with families.
This includes the rollout of a GPS-enabled arrival board that will allow school staff to track their buses in real time, giving them better access to information that can help with proactive messages to families. This arrival board is in 20 schools currently and will be implemented in more schools to come in the days ahead.
A bus tracking app for parents is also in our near term plans. This app, which works in conjunction with the arrival board, will allow parents to log in and see where their child’s bus is located in real time.
In addition to these short-term supports, we are hiring four additional call center representatives and two additional dispatchers to address the large volume of calls that the center receives each day.
Our next strategy to address the driver shortage has been to create more efficient bus routes. Before the pandemic, in March of 2020, we employed 765 bus drivers who handled 704 routes daily. Knowing we could not feasibly hire that many drivers this year, our transportation team worked to create more efficient routes to reduce the number of drivers needed each day.
This has fortunately allowed us to provide transportation for all eligible students attending CCS, charter, and non-public schools. However, as a result of this strategy, some of our routes have longer ride times for students to and from school.
Delays on our tier one routes -- or those typically transporting middle and high school students -- have a domino effect on our tier two routes for elementary students. This has been the biggest factor in routes being delayed during the first week of school. One thing we have seen since the start of the school year is that our ridership has not decreased. Students are still using our yellow bus service to get to and from school, which we appreciate and encourage. We continue to route nearly 40,000 students each day.
To alleviate this large number of riders, we asked transportation eligible families this summer to voluntarily opt out of yellow bus transportation to free up seats. This resulted in families agreeing to provide their own transportation for more than 700 students.
We have also continued the suspension of Form 1 requests for alternate pick-up and drop-off locations for the 2021-2022 school year. This was a strategy that was in place last year as well.
The third strategy to improve our transportation services is driver recruitment. In addition to streamlining our bus routes, we know we need to increase our number of drivers. We currently have 606 active drivers on staff. However, due to leaves of absence and daily call-off rates between 8 and 13 percent, we typically have fewer drivers available on a given school day.
To address this issue, we have recruited new drivers through an aggressive marketing campaign in order to have applicants in the training pipeline. The process to become a full-time school bus driver is not an easy one. It requires obtaining a Commercial Driver’s License -- or CDL -- before training on school buses.
To make the process easier for applicants, we are offering CDL training classes two nights a week. Once an applicant passes the tests to obtain a CDL permit, they must then train to drive a school bus, the culmination of which is a road test.
Here is where we currently stand with bus driver staffing:
- We have 162 candidates in the process of becoming a trainee.
- 20 of these candidates have obtained their CDL permit.
- We have an additional 22 drivers who are in the training process currently with their road tests scheduled for October.
To aid in our recruitment and make the training process more attractive to potential applicants, the Board also approved a wage increase this summer for bus driver trainees from 11 dollars an hour to now 18 dollars an hour.
As I conclude this report, I would like to reiterate that the District is not taking these transportation and customer service concerns lightly.
We understand why families would express their concern and demand to see improvement in our service. We appreciate their patience and understanding, as we work to solve these issues.
Like much of what we have experienced during the pandemic, we are all adjusting to our new normal. We will continue to work every day on providing the best possible transportation services to our students and families. And we will continue to communicate expectations and updates accordingly.