Howard County public schools on March 28 released new student walk zones for next school year as part of efforts to streamline transportation services and implement new school start times.
In May, the board voted unanimously to modify student transportation policy by expanding walk zones from students’ houses to schools and requiring all eligible families to register for bus service.
The new zones, known as “non-transportation areas,” shifted from a half-mile to 1 mile for prekindergarten, from 1 mile to 1 1/2 miles for middle school and from 1 1/2 miles to 2 miles for high school students. The walk distance for elementary school remained at 1 mile, but the distance was changed to be measured from the residence property line to the school property line, instead of the school door.
HCPSS spokesperson Brain Bassett said approximately 3,500 students would lose access to bus services as a result of the new zones.
School officials stressed that the adjustments would not affect students with individualized education plans — sets of customized goals required by law to support students with learning disabilities — and exemptions would still be made for students without suitable walk routes.
“Safety still comes first and foremost,” Director of Student Transportation Brian Nevin said during a March 21 presentation on school start time implementation. “If there’s not a safe pathway or a way for the student to get to the school, they will not be impacted.”
Requests for a reevaluation of students’ walk routes or school bus stops can be made to the Office of Student Transportation.
Walk zones were finalized after the Board of Education voted unanimously on Feb. 23 to change bell times for next school year.
All school start times will be condensed into a series of three tiers, with high schools, six middle schools, Cedar Lane School and the Homewood Center beginning the earliest at 8 a.m.
Tier 2 (14 middle schools and 14 elementary schools) will start classes at 8:40 a.m., and Tier 3 (28 elementary schools) will have the latest bell times, beginning at 9:15 a.m.
The Office of Student Transportation can adjust an individual school’s bell time plus or minus 10 minutes from its assigned tier in order to achieve the greatest busing efficiency. Exact start times for each school will be finalized this spring.
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Bassett said there are 92 bus driver vacancies as of Wednesday. Regardless, the system has been able to cover all routes this year thanks to “double backs,” during which drivers pick up and drop off students on one route before returning to pick up a second group on a different route.
The condensed range of start times will limit the school system’s ability to use double backs, and the transportation office hopes to decrease the number of buses needed next year via a shift to opt-in transportation, expanded walk zones and new bus contracts awarded on a zone rather than a route-by-route basis.
Since some schools of different grade levels share a campus and a start time, there might also be instances of high and middle schoolers or middle and elementary schoolers sharing the same bus.
“School system staff will take efforts to be sure the behavior and language used on the bus is appropriate for students of all ages who may be riding,” HCPSS states on a transportation FAQ page.
Bassett said the school system is planning to open registration for student transportation for next school year around April 11. Registration will close on June 1 and any families not completing the process will not receive bus service.
“Our goal is for 100% of people to be able to complete that,” Bassett said. “We’re going to cast some pretty big nets to start that.”
To learn more about new walk zones for next school year, visit: https://news.hcpss.org/news-posts/2023/03/non-transportation-area-changes-for-2023-2024.