Survey seeks answer for long haul

Parent responses to district survey would be for entire school year, not just Oct. 1-8 pause for remote instruction

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Parents of children in the Rome City School District have flocked to a transportation survey on the district’s website, as well as to various social media platforms, in an attempt to abate the impacts of a shortage of available bus drivers because of positive COVID-19 tests.

The shortage has caused the district to pause in-person instruction and instead go to remote instruction from Friday, Oct. 1, through next Friday, Oct. 8.

Students are slated to return to the classroom on Tuesday, Oct. 12, according to a letter to parents from district Superintendent Peter C. Blake on Thursday.

The district’s busing issues have been noticed in Albany, where Gov. Kathy Hochul’s office issued the following statement on Friday: “Governor Hochul’s top priority is keeping children in school. Our office is working with the district and stakeholders to get an assessment of the situation and to help facilitate solutions.”

Among potential remedies already in the works, the statement said is that the state, through the Department of Motor Vehicles, has asked 550,000 commercial drivers license holders for help via a survey; and has also reached out to unemployed drivers via the Department of Labor. So far, 5,138 individuals have responded to the survey expressed interest statewide. The state has shared names and contact info of the above with BOCES and school districts so they can start calling interested / eligible CDL holders. There are 427 CDL eligible CDL holders in Central New York and the Mohawk Valley, state officials said, adding that they have eliminated the 14-day waiting period for school bus certification.

The state has also opened several new school bus driver testing sites. For school staff who currently hold a CDL, the State will soon set up expedited testing to obtain a permit to drive school vans and buses temporarily. Hochul’s office adds that the state also partnering with law enforcement, firefighter, military organizations and others for recruitment.

If school districts experience a temporary shortage of bus drivers due to COVID, below are a few additional options for districts to explore on a short-term basis: School districts can contract with private charter bus services using federal funding to expand coverage and school districts can also collaborate with local transportation authorities.

The posting on the district’s website, www.romecsd.org, on Friday, read: “In response to today’s news regarding schools shifting to remote learning for a week, many parents and families have come forward offering to transport their children to/from school and asking if that would make a difference. The answer is, it could.”

“In an attempt to see if we can reduce the number of buses necessary to keep schools open, we ask that ALL FAMILIES please take a moment to complete the attached survey before tomorrow, October 1, at 5 p.m.,” the post continues. “Depending on the results of this survey, adjustments to the plan for next week may be possible. Thank you all for your time and prompt participation,” the statement concludes with portions in bold type.

The posting provides a link to an eight-question survey which includes information about the student, including his or her name, along with the name of the parent/guardian, the school they attend, his or her grade and how they intend to get to school: by using district provided transportation; transportation by parent/guardian or family member or whether the student intends to walk to and from school.

Questions regarding what the district could and couldn’t do in regards to temporary transportation arrangements circulated on social media, fueling some misperceptions, according to some district officials.

Board of Education President John Nash, on Friday, said that the transportation surveys completed by Rome City School District families will be used to explore whether students in a given building can return to in-person learning before the prescribed expiration of the temporary remote learning frame on
Oct. 12.

The survey could also be used to determine whether families who could make other transportation arrangements could alleviate outstanding challenges around busing — but as a permanent and not temporary solution.

Because it is not possible to design temporary bus routes for a smaller fleet of buses during the remote learning frame, families confirming they do not require bus transportation to/from school would need to so confirm that for the remainder of the 2021-22 school year, Nash said, adding that the possibility of smaller fleets and revised bus routes, as well as to waive bus transportation just during the period currently prescribed for remote learning — as advanced in the original notice — has been determined not to be an option.

The district and the board understand that is a more difficult commitment for many families to make, but they unfortunately have no flexibility on that regard, officials said.

Additionally, Nash said, there was a misunderstanding in media coverage in regards to an email by board member Anna Megerell. No member of the board formally proposed or intended to suggest that car pool arrangements would be coordinated by the district, which cannot formally do so, the board president said; however, families are free to make those arrangements personally and among themselves.

If the results of a survey indicate that, effectively, 100% of the students in a given school building have families who are willing to waive bus transportation for the remainder of the 2021-22 school year, and be responsible to make their own arrangements for their student(s)’ transport to and from school — and to begin doing so immediately — then it could be possible for that building to return immediately to in-person learning, Nash said, adding that those would be the only circumstances that would preclude keeping the remote learning model until Tuesday, Oct. 12.

Social media postings by parents indicated that while many could — or would attempt — to make temporary arrangements for transportation during the remote instruction period, doing so for the entire school year was logistically impossible or presented too many challenges to commit to for the entire school year.

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