By Jeff Poole
The 2021-22 school year got off to a stunted start last week with schools closed Thursday and Friday following Wednesday’s opening.
Approximately 5,000 masked students arrived at the county’s nine schools Wednesday morning as Orange County Schools returned to five-day-a-week, in-person instruction.
But extreme heat, coupled with federal masking requirements on school buses kept students home Thursday and Friday.
“This year, we have the unprecedented mandate for students to wear masks on buses due to the delta variant of the COVID virus,” Orange County Schools Superintendent Dr. Cecil Snead said. “We have received feedback in the past and currently about heat on the buses. Given the combination of the heat index projected on Thursday and Friday to be between 103 and 110 in the afternoon hours and that students are federally mandated to wear masks on buses, we elected to close.”
He said in the meantime, school officials are investigating retrofitting the school’s bus fleet with air conditioning. The schools’ 15 special needs buses are fitted with air conditioning.
More than 2,730 children travel to school by bus across all programs.
Dr. Snead said there were instances in the past when schools were closed early due to extreme heat, but he could not recall closing for an entire day.
“In the past, however, there were no mandates of wearing masks on buses, nor were people concerned about the combination of masks and heat in the past,” he said.
Given that variable, and “due to the dynamic nature of circumstances that can impact transportation and operation,” he said it’s difficult to set a threshold for what level of heat would prompt schools to close.
According to weather data recorded at the Northern Piedmont Center on Route 15 in Orange, temperatures Thursday and Friday reached highs of 95 both days, though station manager Greg Lillard noted actual temperatures are different than “feel like” temperatures, which include humidity and other factors. Heat advisories were in effect last Thursday and Friday.
Extreme heat and humidity weren’t the only challenges for school transportation last week as buses were delayed and some students placed on the wrong buses, notably at Locust Grove Primary School. Dr. Snead refuted social media reports that suggested students were “lost” but noted some were placed on the wrong bus by school staff.
“Procedures have been thoroughly reviewed and revised and an emphasis has been placed on safeguarding students by multiple checks and balances throughout the school day in regard to bus transport and personal transport,” he said. “The other emphasis has been placed on communication at several levels. Radio communications between buses, schools, and the transportation office is difficult in some areas where there are dead zones. For example, if Child A was on a bus in a dead zone while Child A was trying to be located by radio, then the perception may become that the child was “lost” due to the inability for the bus driver to hear the communication and respond.”
He said until the dead zones are corrected, school administrators have developed a process for the school bus roster to be electronically scanned for the school office to have.
“This means if a bus is in a dead zone, we can rely on the copy of the roster in the school office to provide assurances,” he said. “It’s also important to understand that the roster can only be developed if the child is physically placed on the bus. We are also purchasing a transportation package that will interface with our current bus routing software. This will allow a parent to track their student in real time through an app they download onto their personal device. We will start putting this in place this semester.”
Busing issues were further compounded by an extended delay loading students onto buses at Locust Grove Primary.
“In the beginning days of the school year, historical data suggests that it usually takes 25-30 minutes to load our students onto the LGPS buses,” Dr. Snead said. “However, as habits develop throughout the year we have loaded buses at LGPS in as little as 10-15 minutes. What is unfortunate is that a series of circumstances kept adding to the students’ total experience on the bus that day was about two hours total including waiting in the lot to arriving at their home.”
He said in the meantime, if a school believes a busing delay will be 20 minutes or more, it will place a notice on its Facebook page and issue a School Messenger response.
“We’re owning our mistakes,” Orange County School Board chair Sherrie Page said Friday. “Things weren’t as tight as they should have been but the administration is working to fix that.”
She also acknowledged a number of students were placed on the wrong bus and other delays in loading created a “snowball” effect.
Aside from the transportation challenges, Page said students returning to school were “remarkable.”
“You could tell they wanted to be back at school,” she said of the first day last Wednesday. “They need to be in school and safe. They need to be there to learn, but for the social aspect of it as well.”
Dr. Snead described the energy in the schools last Wednesday as “fantastic.”
“I visited all of the schools on the first day. I started at the high school and worked my way around the county. The students were friendly and appeared ready for their day. I helped a few freshmen find their class. The teachers were ready and expressed appreciation to see their students. This sentiment was the norm at all the schools in Orange County,” he said.
“We are blessed to be able to restart our in-person learning for our students to provide them some semblance of community and normalcy this year. There are so many supportive families and community members who contribute to the greater good that enable us to move past the challenges we face. Our staff works hard with love in their heart for our children. I live it intimately with them every single day. If something doesn’t go as planned, they and I hurt deeply but we all come back stronger for our children. We have much for which to be thankful; and we will continue to give our best for our students.”