The Albemarle County School Board last week debated moving bus stops on snow days to major roads.
The purpose of doing so, Schools officials said, would be to keep schools open, and to keep buses off of rural roads and roads without reliable turnarounds.
Transportation staff recommended not adopting the Plan B Routes, and cited as concerns the safety of students walking on unplowed roads, the difficulty of transporting students with special needs, and what would equate to low attendance.
But School Board member Eric Strucko said adopting the changes would help some.
“That would benefit families of working parents not having to take a day off, multiple days off sequentially when we have two or three snow days in a row, even though driving down Route 250 or Owensville Road…is very doable,” Strucko said.
More than 1,000 students within the division are special education students. Transportation Director Jim Foley estimated that about 120 of those students have Individual Education Plans that require Albemarle to provide door-to-door transportation.
If schools were to open, yet the school buses were not able to reach these students’ homes, the division could be challenged for not fulfilling its obligations, School Board Attorney John Blair said.
In total, Foley estimated that about 1,600 students of the division’s total population—including special education—would be impacted by the Plan B Routes.
Strucko questioned the reasonability of allowing a smaller number of students to keep the remainder of the division’s nearly 14,000 students from attending school.
School Board member Pam Moynihan agreed, and asked if the traditional student population’s rights would be violated if the division closed because they couldn’t transport special education students.
Blair said the other students aren’t being denied anything in that situation because the days can be made up.
Because the division is only required by law to provide transportation to special education students, Moynihan wondered if Albemarle could rely on parents to get their students to school on inclement weather days when buses can’t reach rural roads.
“We could say that, but we’re making decisions based on the road conditions,” Foley said. “So if the road is icy for our buses, it’s going to be icy for our cars.”
“Do parents leave their houses and drive with four-wheel drive, or without, when it’s icy, sure,” Foley added.
School Board member Steve Koleszar said that he thinks the Board would “reasonably figure” that they wouldn’t close all schools because of one student, and argued that the central issue to the debate was student safety.
“You’re talking about students maybe walking a long way down a road, you’re talking about students congregating at the edge of a road,” Koleszar said.
School Board member Kate Acuff noted that the move would put hundreds of teen drivers on the roads in tough driving conditions.
Superintendent Pam Moran said the division adopted Plan B Routes in the late 1990’s, and that they weren’t met with support from parents.
If the roads were cleared but lined with high snow drifts, Moran said, the parents had little space to park and wait for the bus with their child.
What’s more, Moran said, is that the few parents who did stay at the new bus stop became liable for all of the children.
Between November 26 and March 7, Albemarle closed 11 times during 23 weather events, which translates to a 48 percent close rate. During the same time period, eight surrounding counties closed 61 percent of the time.
The division would have closed for seven of those eleven days “no matter what,” Transportation Director Jim Foley said.
To gauge the safety of the roads, Foley said that he relies on weather forecasts and six bus drivers who are out between 2:30 a.m. and 4:00 a.m. on the night of snow events.
Additionally, Foley said, the division is exploring the option of outfitting about 100 buses with automatic tire chains that drivers could engage from inside the bus. Foley estimates doing so would cost about $250,000.
The School Board did not take action on the bus route proposal and requested more information. School Board member Jason Buyaki asked staff to calculate how many miles buses travel on the rural roads in question.
“I think that’s something the public, and maybe even the Board doesn’t understand, is how many tertiary roads and so forth that we’re travelling on,” Buyaki said.
Strucko said that this type of information would help the public understand when schools close yet many of the County’s roads are passable.
“If we say a certain number of students are on these rural, impassable roads, and it’s a critical mass, then that’ll help us with having people understand our policies better,” Strucko said.”