With some bus routes lasting longer than an hour in the district, West Geauga is working to find balance in travel times for students.

Director of Technology and Operations Sean Whelan presented the current state of transportation in the district to the Board of Education, during a virtual Oct. 12 meeting, with plans in place to help shorten times on a few problem routes running longer than an hour.

The board’s standard for bus routes in the district is to be at one hour or less with about 80 square miles in the entire district with this year’s addition of Newbury.

He said at West Geauga Middle and High schools, all 36 trips are under the one-hour standard. At the elementary level, there are 18 morning trips at or under one hour with one reaching up to 10 minutes over the hour.

For the afternoon elementary routes, there are nine trips that are under an hour for all students, but there are six on the radar that are at one hour some days, but over by about 5 minutes others. Mr. Whelan said the district is working on determining whether the routes causing this are for Lindsey or Westwood students.

He added that there are four trips that reach up to 10-15 minutes over the hour for Lindsey students.

Since the start of the school year, however, loading times have gone down significantly as students have adjusted to their routines, Mr. Whelan said, which have helped the route times and may continue to do so.

“There’ve been a lot of factors impacting [the district] leading up to this year, but more importantly impacting this first month [of in-person instruction] that are very unique to transportation,” Mr. Whelan said.

The district converted to in-person classes last month with a virtual option after starting the school year entirely virtual on Aug. 18.

Factors that have impacted the first month of transportation for in-person instruction include COVID-19 restrictions on passengers and disinfection protocol, all buses needing to go to both Lindsey Elementary School and Westwood Elementary school when half went to each in previous years, changes in busing participation from the initial opt-in survey and available drivers, among others, Mr. Whelan said.

Specific to the increase in students utilizing buses, Mr. Whelan said this has added to route times because of the district’s structure.

“We had over 30 families change plans,” he said. “We have no group stops, so when students are added on to our buses, this adds additional stops to streets, which due to the distance of our homes has an impact on routes.”

He added that the availability of drivers is another challenge the district, like many others, is facing. He noted the retirement of a driver and another that chose to leave the district.

“Recruitment is ongoing just to maintain capacity in a year where substitutes are very hard to find,” he said, noting many substitutes are opting out of working in schools due to COVID-19.

“We’ve been working really hard on balancing routes due to some of these concerns as quickly as possible. One of the challenges with balancing bus routes is the proximity of a bus that can support a route without recreating the problem,” Mr. Whelan said.

“We have a wide distance that we’re covering, so sometimes that bus route that’s immediately adjacent is not necessarily available,” he added, explaining that adjusting the farther routes would be a “domino effect” that would require slowly adjusting all routes.

Mr. Whelan said plans are in the works to continue finding balance and adjusting the routes to shorten times, which may require some students switching buses. As of the meeting last week, he said it could take him at least two weeks before new findings would be presented to the board.

Other transportation plans in the works include hiring a full-time substitute driver to have on hand in the event a driver is unavailable, as well as recruiting an assistant transportation supervisor to work alongside Transportation Supervisor Cheryl Fowler.

The next West Geauga Board of Education meeting is Oct. 26 at 7 p.m. via Zoom.

Sam Cottrill started reporting for the Times in February 2019 and covers Auburn, Bainbridge, Bentleyville and Chagrin, Kenston, Solon and West Geauga schools. She graduated from Kent State University in 2018 with a bachelor's degree in journalism.

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