CUMBERLAND – School officials are moving to change school walking distance standards as part of a multi-pronged approach to fixing busing and traffic issues that have plagued the start of the 2021-2022 year.
The School Committee’s policies and procedures subcommittee on Tuesday unanimously recommended passage of a rewritten busing policy changing walking distances from two miles to one mile for high school students, 1.5 miles to three quarters of a mile for grades 6-8, and three quarters of a mile to a half-mile for grades K-5.
Chairman Mark Fiorillo said he rewrote the entire policy, including related to student expectations at bus stops and on buses.
Supt. Philip Thornton says Rhode Island has been seeing an increase in school traffic across the state during the pandemic, and Cumberland is one of the communities most impacted, as schools have been seeing an increase in parents driving their children to and from school.
“There are a lot more cars on the road and with that we’re trying to problem-solve,” Thornton said during a School Committee meeting last Thursday, Sept. 9. “For the high school, we are also looking at problem-solving and how to manage the number of cars, the car volume at the high school is probably at an all time high.”
Thornton said at last week’s meeting that one discussion school officials have been having with Durham School Services, the busing company the schools have a fresh contract extension with, is the possibility of having bus drivers pick up more students who are currently mandated to walk due to eligibility rules on distances.
Clamping down on those distance requirements last year led many parents to express safety concerns and start driving their children to school, leading to increased traffic at drop-off and pick-up times.
Cumberland High School Dean of Discipline Scott Carpenter helps in overseeing the busing and transportation for the high school.
“In the morning, our main problem is that there are approximately 1,000 cars coming up to the high school, so to be able to control that traffic, it literally needs to be all hands on deck to try to get everybody up and in,” he said. “The traffic in the morning, I’m going to be honest, it’s asking too much of the facility here, to put in that many cars in that short period of time, we don’t have the appropriate setup.”
Carpenter said he believes part of the issue with the increase in traffic is due to the buses being less full, which he has noticed.
“To be honest, the increase in the two miles has increased people driving their kids in because I don’t know anybody that would want to walk from (Route) 99 in the morning to go to school,” Carpenter said. “So that has increased the traffic as well.”
Because of the increase in traffic, the schools are making plans to start tracking how many cars are coming to campus to drop students off. They have also asked parents who are picking up their children to pick up their children at the parking lot adjacent to the Sher-Le-Mon swim club.
For students who have a physical injury or disability, parents are asked to pull into the back of the school until buses leave and then pull into the front where they can pick up their children close to the school’s entrance.
With this rule in place, Carpenter said everything went more smoothly, but he said if bus drivers are late and try to pull onto the school’s campus late, then they are disrupting the entire traffic pattern and creating traffic jams again.
Cumberland High School Principal Adolfo Costa said another way the school has been trying to solve the problems with traffic is by mandating high school students to use the pedestrian bridge crossing Mendon Road and connecting the high school with the parking areas across the street.
“Students have been told, not asked but told, that they will use the bridge moving forward, arriving and departing from school,” Costa said. “And they already use the bridge whether they’re getting picked up by their parents or using their own car.”
“The two days we’ve kind of made it mandatory for the bridge, it has been absolutely fantastic,” Carpenter said. “The kids have definitely not been happy about it, but they were compliant with it.”
School board member Denis Collins said he and the other members had been getting a multitude of complaints from parents about the timing of buses being late for pick-up and drop-off, both of which add to the traffic jams.
“One of the issues that seem to be glaring, aside from the morning issues, is the afternoon drop-off ,particularly at Community School, the bus stop arrivals are extremely bad right now,” he said.
Collins said he has been monitoring bus pick-up times and has noticed that bus seven has been arriving consistently late. He said dismissal for the school is at 3:15 p.m., but the bus has been arriving consistently after 4 p.m. each day. Collins said the distance from Community School to Tower Hill Road, where the bus has to go, is about two miles.
“Today the bus didn’t leave the school until 4:15 p.m.,” Collins said. “That is an hour after dismissal that the kids are even loaded on the bus.”
Bus seven is specifically used for special needs students and, according to Durham, there must be someone to monitor and help those students.
“So what can be done, because you know you’re dealing with a special needs child who is sitting in the lobby for an hour,” Collins said. “Especially a vulnerable population like that, it seems ridiculous, and I know parents are angry and we can only tell parents to be patient.”
Jennifer Goodwin, Cumberland resident and school teacher, spoke to committee members about her own experience with bus seven.
“My daughter is on bus seven, so it’s disappointing to hear and know everything that has been happening with the bus,” Goodwin said. “Her bus time according to Durham is 8:33 a.m., and the earliest she’s been picked up is 8:55 a.m.”
Goodwin said that the extra half-hour her daughter is waiting for the bus could impact her daughter being able to get more sleep, have a better breakfast, and have more time to play in the afternoon before they need to start homework.
“It’s just disappointing, I know we’re only six days in and I usually give it a week before I start to complain,” Goodwin said. “But I feel like the kinks should be worked out by now.”
Collins said he has explained the domino effect of buses not arriving within their allotted times, thus disrupting the rest of traffic and creating traffic jams parents, but that parents are frustrated, especially in light of the contract renewal with Durham, which has been the target of complaints year after year.
“It’s a bad look for Durham, and we put a lot of faith in you and it’s our hope that you can fix this,” Collins said. “This relationship under the new contract is not off to a great start regardless of the cause of some of these issues.”