CHAMPAIGN — The Champaign school district is investigating continuing issues with school bus transportation, district spokeswoman Stacey Moore said.
The district transports more than 6,000 students a day to and from school, and is operating with just half the regularly available bus drivers, she said.
“We are aware of some transportation-related concerns and have begun an internal investigation,” Moore said. “Our goal is to always ensure adequate supervision and safe travel for our students.
“We truly appreciate our families’ patience and understanding as we work quickly to make necessary adjustments to our transportation routes/schedules.”
Savoy parent Aaron Geiger, who has three children in three different Champaign schools, said his family lives a mile-and-a-half from his second-grader’s school, Carrie Busey Elementary in Savoy, but his son’s trip home aboard an un-air-conditioned bus has been taking 90 minutes.
Geiger said his older son’s trip home on a school bus from Edison Middle School is running two hours, and his daughter has spent an hour on a bus getting home from Dr. Howard Elementary School.
Three days ago, his normally tough second-grader came home so hot that he was covered in sweat and in tears, Geiger said.
And, “it doesn’t look like they’re going to get more drivers soon,” he said.
Champaign parent Kate Walczak said her fourth-grade son, who takes the bus to International Prep Academy, 1605 W. Kirby Ave., has been regularly arriving about an hour late, and on Friday, the bus never arrived to pick him up at all.
The school day begins at 7:50 a.m. and her son’s bus is scheduled to pick him up at 7:46 a.m., Walczak said. She said the earliest he’s been picked up since school started has been 8:06 a.m., and on average, he’s arrived a couple of minutes before 9 a.m.
The trip home has been faster. Walczak said her son’s bus is scheduled to drop him off after school at 3:09 p.m. — more than an hour after classes let out for the day at 2:05 p.m. — and he’s been arriving home about 2:30 p.m.
Walczak said the amount of time her son has lost in being late to school each day has already added up to full day of instruction, and it’s been stressful for him to arrive that late each day.
She’s hopeful next week will be better. Walczak said she got a call from the district transportation office Friday telling her that her son is being changed to a different bus that should get him to school on time.
She believes the bus issues go deeper than a driver shortage and that there are issues at the district administration level — among them a lack of communication and transparency.
She said the district has an obligation to taxpaying parents to get their children to school on time, and while she’s hopeful this issue has been resolved for her son, she still has concerns for other kids on his bus.
Geiger put his concerns in writing to principals at all three of his kids’ schools, asking for someone to put his mind at ease about his kids’ safety and their timeliness and attendance at school.
“The shortage of drivers is complicating an already-dangerous situation,” he wrote. “This winter, I’m afraid children will be left on the curb in freezing temperatures, wondering when the bus is going to come, especially when more people call in sick.”
Carrie Busey Principal Craig Keer was sympathetic in an email reply.
“We have constantly been in contact with the transportation department and our district office on behalf of our students and families. We have sent emails and talked with them on the phone,” he wrote. “While the transportation department has been working to reduce ride times for all students, it is extremely short staffed.”
Keer went on to advise Geiger that if possible, he should pick his son up from school until bus issues are resolved or the heat subsides.
“I simply can’t tell you the situation is going to dramatically improve in the near future,” Keer wrote. “It is only my hope.”
Geiger said he also contacted the district’s transportation department to ask if children were going to be safe in hot buses and was told by a person who answered the phone, “I guess so.”
On Wednesday, the district notified students’ families that with a heat advisory issued in the area, “we will make sure students fill their water bottles prior to leaving school buildings at dismissal time.”
The notice also said students are allowed to drink water on buses, extra water bottles will be made available and bus windows will be open.
The Urbana school district has been able to cover driver shortages, according to spokeswoman Katherin Tellez.
“Urbana has had a typical beginning-of-the-year delays, and thus far we have been able to cover driver shortages in house and from other local First Student bus companies,” she said.