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Thursday •  April 27, 2023

Guest Post: School Bus Cancellations in Howard County: Bad for Safety, Equity, Earth

By Neighbors for Buses

Howard County is a community generally known to value safety, equity, and environmentalism. However, a recent quietly-made decision by the Howard County Public School System (HCPSS) seems to ignore all of these values.


Effective August 2023, HCPSS has made the unprecedented decision to cancel school bus service for thousands of children.  Despite advertising that bus coverage would be maintained for kindergarten through 5th grade students living 1.0 mile from their elementary school, more than one third of school bus cancellations slated for 2023-2024 year are affecting elementary school children as recently cited by HCPSS Transportation Brian Nevin at a joint Howard County Council / Board of Education meeting (See section on “Safety of Students and Teachers”; estimates given are 1,350 elementary students out of 3,500 total students affected).


How can this be?  Recent changes to the wording in HCPSS Transportation Policy 5200 have not only increased the non-transport (walker) radius from 1.0 mile to 1.5 miles for middle school students and 1.5 to 2.0 miles for high school students, but have further redefined the distance from a student’s home to their elementary school as no longer including the distance from the front of the school property to the school door and for those living in apartment complexes and condominiums as no longer including the distance from the building door to the property line (a distance children still have to walk). (See Sections F 1, 2.i. and 2.ii. of this document)

While it is not new to policy 5200 that “In establishing the demarcation line between transported and non-transported areas, the Student Transportation Office may extend these distances to coincide with breaks in the pattern of homes, such as cul-de-sac, street intersections, major roadways, streams, parks, walking easements, commercial property, vacant land, unusual contour variations, and other features,” it is new that the transportation office is using this language to slash bus service for so many children who are 1.1 to 1.3+ miles away from their school despite living in homes that had previously received service.


Multiple requests for input went out to elementary school families about their opinions regarding school start times, yet none of the questions in these surveys referenced the fact that if school start times changed, then many elementary school students would lose their bus service.  Time changes were not a policy designed to directly benefit elementary school students or their parents, and many community members filled out the surveys thinking strictly about what schedules older students might prefer, voting in favor of later high school start times while ignoring the impact on elementary school students and families.


When the upcoming bus cancellations were released to parents through “non-transportation area” maps the week before spring break and were linked to school start times, many elementary school families who had supported the changes to school start times were shocked to see these transportation changes.  These same families may have voted differently had they realized that to push school times back, HCPSS planned to cut school bus coverage for over a thousand elementary school students.


The cancellation of school bus service for elementary school students can significantly affect a parent’s ability to work, particularly for parents of younger elementary school aged students.  In Maryland, leaving a child under the age of 8 unattended is considered neglect.  Thus, if a young elementary school child needs to walk 1.2 miles to get to school and does not have access to a private vehicle, a caregiver must walk 1.2 miles to go to school, 1.2 miles to come back home, 1.2 miles to go back to school to pick up the child, and finally 1.2 miles to bring the child home from school.  In total, many elementary school parents/caregivers in the new non-transportation areas would have to walk close to 5 miles or more every school day just to supervise their child going to and from school.


Families who rely on older relatives to help with caregiving may not have access to a caregiver who is able to walk these distances.  Families forced to walk to school also must do so regardless of the weather, oftentimes dealing with extreme heat, rain, storms, or freezing temperatures.

Why should a child show up to school wet, sweaty, cold or tired just because they don’t have access to a private vehicle?

Children are not allowed to go outside for recess when there is bad weather or extreme temperatures, yet children and their caregivers are expected to be regularly exposed to similar hostile weather conditions walking to school if they do not have access to a private vehicle.   


In addition to being inequitable, there are serious safety concerns with the recent changes to HCPSS transportation policy.  For at least two neighborhoods (not disclosed here for confidentiality while these cases are still under review by the Transportation Office), prior safety waivers were either ignored, misplaced or forgotten when the new non-transportation service areas were created.  These do not appear to be isolated incidents as HCPSS families from other neighborhoods have commented on social media that they have lost transportation service despite no changes or inadequate changes in safety (e.g. no new sidewalk or crosswalk) and that they had prior school bus service due to safety provisions.


Any official looking at the 2022-2023 coverage map for school bus service should have noticed that many students receive school bus service who live at shorter distances than prior non-transportation areas area limits.  Transportation for these students was obtained through waivers that are usually granted for safety, particularly if a large section of a neighborhood is identified as unsafe for walking to school, such as if there is poor visibility with blind hills in a neighborhood with narrow streets and no sidewalks.  Yet in a recent Baltimore Sun article, Director of Student Transportation Brian Nevin stated that “all new walk zones were assessed for safety . . .”


Despite many HCPSS parents vocally expressing their concerns about these changes with the Office of Transportation, HCPSS has neither given an answer on a safety reassessment ruling or provided a timeline on when an answer will be available.  Meanwhile, the June 1st deadline to register for bus service for next year is approaching fast, and families are concerned that they will miss out on this opportunity if safety reassessments lag into the summer (since bus registration is not allowed for children in non-transportation areas).  What is most concerning about the above is that if vocal neighborhoods are having trouble being heard, it is likely that neighborhoods with children with less resources and perhaps with less time and ability to advocate for change are being entirely ignored.


For those relieved that their school bus service has not been cancelled, please be advised, drastic changes to the maximum distance of a school bus stop from a student’s home were also quietly entered with other changes in Transportation Policy 5200.

Most residents are not yet aware of these changes.

Whereas standard bus stops can currently be no more than 0.5 miles from home, starting in the 2023-24 school year, bus stops can be up to 1 mile away from home for elementary school students, 1.5 miles away from home for middle school students, and 2.0 miles away for high school students (See Section 3 G 1).

Some officials have cited that this new policy regarding distance from home to bus stops is to promote equality between those in the non-transportation zone and those who retain bus service.  However, it is striking that in a school district that promotes equity, officials don’t seem to understand that what may sound “equal” is not promoting equity and will cause even more children with less resources and challenging family circumstances to fall behind.


For example, a young elementary school student who lives 3 miles away from an elementary school who qualifies for bus service may now need to walk 1.0 mile from home to get to their bus stop.  Prior to recent transportation policy changes, this child’s parent(s) may have made arrangements with a grandparent to supervise the child getting to and from the bus stop while the parent(s) departed for work.  Under the new policy, a child’s supervising caregiver may need to walk up to 1 to 2 miles (depending on the child’s grade level) to get to the school bus stop, 1 to 2 miles to get back home, another 1 to 2 miles to go to the school bus in the afternoon, and finally another 1 to 2 miles to accompany the student back home at the end of the day for a total of up to 4 to 8 miles daily.


Not every caregiver has the ability to walk these distances.  This child’s parent would now be responsible either to hire a physically fit caregiver or to drive the child in a private vehicle to the bus stop or, depending on the distance, may find it easier to just drive the student directly to school.  Many families cannot afford to implement these changes, so a child’s parent may have to make a difficult choice between taking time off of work needed to pay for grocery bills and rent or leaving the child under-supervised.  Either way, these policy changes have the potential to be extremely harmful over the long term to both the student and their family.


What most officials fail to acknowledge as they advertise to their constituents the benefits of walking or as they promote ideas like “walking school buses” that rely on unpaid caregiver effort, is that students who live in the new non-transportation areas are unlikely to walk to school if they can afford other options. Many children from families with more resources who live closer to school in the current walk zones are often already being driven to school, particularly in bad weather.  In addition to providing safety hazards as cars idle in school zones and back up local traffic, these cars are polluting local school air. Now that “walk zones” are further away from schools, an even greater percentage of children that do not qualify for buses will likely be driven to school each day, increasing this negative environmental impact.


Here is an example to help visualize the problem of increasing the number of students being driven to school: An average school bus has 13 rows of seats on each side and can fit 3 elementary students per row. 13 rows x 2 sides x 3 students = 78 student capacity.  If one school bus is cancelled & if 1/3 of students walk, 52 students would ride cars (78-26=52).  If students share rides so that there is an average of 2 students per vehicle, that one bus will be replaced by 26 cars now on Howard County roads (52/2=26), driving to their local school twice daily on five days of the week.  Losing 1 bus can equal 26 extra cars idling in school parking lots. The length of an average school bus is 35 feet.  The average car length is 14.7 feet.  Provide one foot of space between each vehicle 14.7 + 1 = 15.7 feet. 26 idling cars x 15.7 feet = 408.5 feet.  For every one 35-foot school bus that a school loses, a line of 408.2 feet of idling private vehicles may result, along with the added emissions from those 26 cars during their driving route and time idling in the parking lot.   Meanwhile, many local schools are sending e-mails to families about their already overwhelmed drop-off and pick-up lines that lead to safety concerns (see an example below).

For a school system whose Strategic Call to Action is “Learning and Leading with Equity”, the changes recently made to the transportation policy are staggeringly inequitable.  Parents of children with more resources are already finding ways to buy their way out of school bus cancellations.  Many are signing up for before and/or aftercare or are hiring a driver to take their child to school. Combined before and aftercare programs can approach $500/month per child, but for parents who work from home while their children walk to the school bus, they may have no cheaper option while retaining employment.  Children with less means often do not have these choices. 


Parents of elementary school children who are losing school bus service have been blindsided and feel betrayed because no one asked for their input prior to these changes being made.  Most parents would never have expected that a school system that prides itself in safety, equity and environmentalism would quietly work in changes that betray all of these values and sever access to a service that many parents rely on and that promotes safety, equity, and environmentalism for all students through a shared commute.


If you would like to help advocate for change, please contact your elected representatives on the the Board of Education, Howard County Council, and the County Executive and express your concerns.  To learn more about bus cancellations in Howard County, consider following Facebook account Neighbors Buses and Twitter account @Neighbors4Buses.  We’re using hashtags #Neighbors4Buses and #SaveOurSchoolBuses .

DISCLAIMER: This post is a HoCo Watchdogs Guest Reader Contribution. 


The opinions and views expressed in this publication are solely those of the listed author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions or views of HoCo Watchdogs, LLC or the HoCo Watchdogs main blog author, Steven Keller.

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