Laura Silverman and her husband moved to Westport from Brooklyn 4 years ago.
Like so many other residents — new and old — she’s had it with Dattco.
That’s the Westport Public Schools’ bus contractor that has been the focus of many complaints this fall. Laura says that school administrators “are busting their tails for our kids this year.” But bus problems continue.
Some routes are being combined with others. Parents have been late for work when buses are late — or never come at all.
At the end of the school day, some children arrive home well after 4 p.m. They’ve spent a long time in school, a long time waiting for the bus, a long time on it — and then they’re late for after-school sports practices, lessons, appointments and more.
Laura notes another issue: COVID. She says:
A few weeks ago, an outbreak at Saugatuck resulted in 25 positive cases and dozens of kids in quarantine (my son was one of them). I have high praise for the professionalism of our principal, Beth Messler. She and her staff have made serious efforts to implement social distancing in school, mask wearing, and lunch outdoors so the kids are not crowded in the cafeteria.
Contact tracing showed that many cases were across grade levels, making it unlikely the virus was contracted in school.
The conclusion: The children were all on the same buses.
Laura asked Messler what was being done to insure social distancing on buses. She said her buses were at capacity and cannot socially distance students. To accomplish socially distancing, schools would need more buses, which of course has budget implications.
So — like many parent — Laura drives her child to school. In the afternoon she waits in a line reaching down Riverside to Sunny Daes. She spends more than 5 hours each work week doing that.
Laura is frustrated with the lack of communication from Dattco about a resolution.
She praises the Westport schools’ efforts during the pandemic. But, she says, all that work is undermined when the buses don’t run on time.
Or at all.
Great minds think alike. Superintendent of schools Thomas Scarice is well aware of the problem. On Friday he sent this message to all Westport families:
Transportation continues to be a significant issue in the district. What began with initial concerns regarding dropoff times, particularly for our elementary students, gradually worsened into a lack of reliability and consistency for families at all levels. As a result, the daily challenges in transportation have evolved and now impact the actual school day in a variety of ways.
The bus driver shortage (Dattco lost 9 drivers since the start of the year in addition to the loss of a dispatcher and the operations supervisor), increased town traffic, and adjusted start times have conspired to significantly impact our ability to provide reliable transportation. There have been delayed bus runs, buses lacking drivers, and last minute condensing of routes leading to confusion, disruption and further delays.
In response, the district has confronted our transportation provider, Dattco, in order to determine what solutions can be implemented to provide reliable transportation. Dattco has reallocated staff from other locations and worked to fast-track new office hires to fully staff the team dedicated to Westport.
In a recent meeting, the Board of Education offered to assist in providing support for any solutions. However, even with that support, there are contractual obligations that are expected to be upheld by our provider, Dattco.
There are a number of short-term measures that are being put in place to mitigate the impact of the driver shortage. However, each of these solutions, while providing increased reliability and consistency, will result in unintended, but inevitable, consequences.
Dattco has assured the district that there are currently 13 individuals in training for CDL licensure and scheduled to join Westport this school year. Six of these candidates are only awaiting the comprehensive background check and clearance. These additional drivers will help mitigate the driver shortage, but additional measures will need to be taken in the interim as the process of licensing can take an extended period of time.
In addition, the district reached out to local first responders to determine if perhaps there are some that could assist in driving buses. Unfortunately, the inconsistency of their schedules do not resolve the need for daily reliability and consistency.
Given the critical shortage of drivers, bus routes will be combined. Although this practice has occurred on an “as needed” basis over the past month, last week, our Transportation Coordinator, Buffy Barry, began the process of permanently condensing routes so that the district’s 57 routes would be reduced to 51. This would require 6 fewer drivers and significantly improve Dattco’s ability to reliably staff our buses on a daily basis, while also minimizing the inevitable absences when they occur. Once a full roster of drivers is stabilized, there will be consideration for returning to the original routes. However, that is not anticipated until months after the system has stabilized with new drivers.
The unintended, but inevitable, consequence of condensing these routes is that there will be more students on individual buses and the routes will be longer. This is not desirable, particularly given our successful mitigation efforts with COVID on our buses and in our classrooms. Providing reliable and consistent service is our priority at the present time. We will provide updated information to parents about adjusted pick up and drop off times.
While securing new drivers is critically important, retaining our current stable of drivers is equally necessary for the district to provide reliability and consistency. Dattco is working to implement efforts to maintain drivers and the Board of Education has also committed to supporting driver retention efforts. The district will look to partner with other groups, such as our PTAs, to ensure we maintain current levels while welcoming new drivers in the future.
If condensing routes does not provide the necessary reliability and consistency, it will be necessary to consider other interventions. Cluster/community bus stops create efficiencies by combining a series of proximal stops into one. Fewer stops with the same total number of students on a bus allows for increased drive time and quicker arrivals. Of course there would be safety considerations to be taken into account before such decisions could be made.
Finally, creating more time between bus tiers might be necessary to accommodate the newly condensed bus routes. Currently, the district provides for 30 minutes between each of our three tiers. This is an extreme intervention and would only be considered if all other interventions fail to provide the necessary reliability and consistency in pick up and drop off times for families. These interventions will be considered after four weeks of the newly condensed routes being implemented.
There is obvious frustration when waiting for your child’s bus, particularly when there is pressure to get to work in the morning, or to bring your child to an activity after school. Calling or emailing Dattco or our transportation coordinator, Buffy Barry, is the appropriate action.
However, given the crisis, if you do not receive a reply, please understand that this is entirely related to these members of the transportation team performing their essential functions in resolving issues and working to ensure that each student is driven back and forth to school safely.
Our standard is to reply to inquiries, yet during this time, it is a challenge to provide the same communication service that parents expect when transportation is fully staffed, on our buses and in our offices.