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JCPS to bring some students back Friday after transportation debacle

A man in a suit stands before a TV camera and a collection of microphones. He is in a parking lot. A school bus is parked in the background.
J. Tyler Franklin
/
LPM
JCPS Superintendent Marty Pollio takes questions from reporters on Aug. 9, 2023.

Jefferson County Public Schools is bringing students back to the classroom in stages, starting Friday with elementary and middle schoolers.

After a “transportation disaster,” schools in the state’s largest school district will remain closed Wednesday and Thursday while staff prepare for the staggered return. All school staff are expected to return to work Tuesday, said JCPS superintendent Marty Pollio.

On Friday, Aug. 18, all elementary and middle school students will return.

On Monday, Aug. 21, the district will bring back all high school students.

Students who attend multilevel schools, such as Marion C. Moore School, will return with their level: Middle school students will return Friday, while high school students will return Monday.

Pollio said the district is trying to launch a free mobile app that will allow families to track the location of their child’s bus on their smartphone.

“One of the greatest errors I think we had last week was not having effective communication with families. And we are correcting that,” Pollio said, adding he’s hoping the app will be ready to use by Friday, when elementary and middle school students return.

The promised mobile app is among a number of technology upgrades Pollio said the district needs.

“I'll be quite candid: Our systems in transportation and our technology in transportation was extremely antiquated,” he told reporters Monday night.

Pollio said that was a major cause of the bungled first day of school. Drivers do not have GPS technology, and are not allowed to use phones on the bus. They drive complex routes by following turn-by-turn instructions written on sheets of paper.

Drivers are also expected to use their radios to speak with their dispatcher or schools when issues arise. But Pollio said the frequencies were overloaded with calls, and some couldn’t get through.

Those longstanding technology issues came to the fore Wednesday, when JCPS’ brand new transportation plan failed, causing panic as parents went hours without being able to find or contact their children. The last child was dropped off close to 10 p.m.

The debacle forced JCPS to cancel school.

In order to transport students safely, one solution the district is pursuing is to pay teachers to be “shoulder buddies” for bus drivers with the longest and most complicated routes. They want staff to volunteer to follow buses in their car, and be at the ready with their own GPS to help drivers who get lost. Pollio did not explain how teachers would communicate with drivers en route.

Another major issue, Pollio said, was that some routes were impossible to complete in the time required. That’s because JCPS staff added 5,000 stops to the routes designed by AlphaRoute, a Boston-based consulting group. AlphaRoute promised to use artificial intelligence to design a plan that would allow JCPS to get more than 60,000 kids to and from school with just 550 bus drivers.

Pollio said the thousands of additional stops were added without accurately accounting for the time they would add.

Asked if AlphaRoute signed off on the additional stops, Pollio said he didn’t have the specifics.

“I'll tell you this: it'd be a lot easier for me to stand up here and just say it was AlphaRoute’s fault. That's not the case,” he said.

Another issue that caused delays was that many students did not recognize their new bus stops, which are farther from home than in years past.

When students missed their stops, buses had to circle back, adding significant time to the run. Pollio said schools are going to do a better job of making sure students understand where their stop is, and giving them the appropriate tags.

Drivers were also significantly delayed Wednesday because adults weren’t at stops to receive young children, Pollio said, forcing some buses to wait for parents to arrive. JCPS is trying to make waits shorter in those cases by keeping a fleet of JCPS vans at the ready to drive over and take the child home or back to their school.

Transportation staff will also be prepared to take students home in JCPS vans if their buses arrive late to depots for their transfers, Pollio said. That way buses picking up students for the second leg of their journey don’t have to wait for those who are delayed.

The district is also adjusting routes, Pollio said. AlphaRoute employees are in town helping to make the drives more efficient, he said. He said the company is not charging extra for the additional work.

JCPS is offering free lunch for students at the sites across the district on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday from 11 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. A list of those locations and other resources for families is available here.

Support for this story was provided in part by the Jewish Heritage Fund.

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Jess Clark is LPMs Education and Learning Reporter. Email Jess at jclark@lpm.org.